Hong Kong's cyber-dissenters get real
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - They call themselves the "post-1980s generation", and their anger is boiling over in the streets of this city. As many of them are well into their 20s, post-1980 is a more accurate description. Whatever they are called, they are making some noise.

They started speaking up years ago, but Hong Kong's old guard wasn't listening. Now they are screaming to be heard and literally trying to force their way into the corridors of power.

While their elders look on with dismay, analysts debate what principles this new youth movement stands for, besides a reflexive opposition to the status quo. Under British rule, following World War II, their grandparents and parents built this city into a prosperous Asian hub, and now they want their fair say in post-colonial Hong Kong.

But what is it they are trying to say? Internet-driven, they have no identifiable leadership or coherent view of the city's future as they coalesce on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook over a wide range of concerns - from the 11-year jail sentence handed down on Christmas Day to dissident writer Liu Xiaobo to economic and conservation issues in Hong Kong. Although generally educated and articulate, their lack of a unifying vision and their organizational base in cyberspace leaves them weakly linked and open to easy criticism from conventional commentators.

Nevertheless, their mounting activism has tapped a general dissatisfaction with a Hong Kong government that, increasingly out of touch with the people, appears to have been reduced to a mere puppet whose masters in Beijing pull the strings. Although the teens and 20-somethings who make up the post-1980 generation may lack leadership and a clear stand on the way forward for Hong Kong, their frustration with a post-colonial order that simply doesn't work for them has captured popular imagination and clearly shaken the authorities in Beijing, who are busy building a firewall against an army of cyber-dissidents on the mainland.

Hong Kong's youthful malcontents were heavily involved in protests against the demolition of the iconic Star Ferry Pier in 2006 to make way for further land reclamation and commercial development in Victoria Harbor, the shrinking stretch of water separating Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula. Two years later, they staged sit-ins at equally venerable Queen's Pier, which was torn down for the same reason.

Their most recent cause celebre is the government's HK$66.9 billion (US$8.3 billion) express rail link to the mainland, which was approved by the Legislative Council (Legco), the city's mini-parliament, in December.

The wisdom of the underground, 26-kilometer link - the most expensive stretch of railway on the planet per kilometer - has been questioned by experts and opposed by many of the city's pan-democratic politicians. But Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his ministers have bulldozed ahead with the plan, counting on the government-friendly majority of an assembly where half its members are democratically elected, to push it through.

What the Tsang administration was not counting on, however, were the thousands of demonstrators, many of them in their teens and 20s, who besieged the Legco building on January 16 as the vote on the rail link was taking place. The protesters surrounded the building for two days while pan-democratic lawmakers inside threw up procedural obstacles in an attempt to block a vote they knew they would lose.

When the pan-democrats finally ran out of tricks, and news spread that funding for the new express line had been approved by a vote of 31 to 21, the carnival atmosphere which had prevailed among demonstrators up to that point, turned nasty.

Some protesters stormed the building, and police answered with pepper spray. As the clash continued, Hong Kong's Transport Minister Eva Cheng and pro-government lawmakers were trapped inside until well into the night.

protesters also tried to crash through the gates of Government House, the official residence of the chief executive.

In the end, as usual, the government won the battle, but it was a pyrrhic victory for the demonstrators, once again revealing the pretense of the "one country-two systems" mantra that has supposedly defined the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China since the 1997 handover from British rule.

As critics have pointed out, Hong Kong's rail network already goes to Guangzhou, the capital of southern Guangdong province, although not at high speed. The cost of the new express line, scheduled for completion in 2015, is astronomical, while Tsoi Yuen village in the New Territories will be demolished to make way for the line, forcing residents to relocate. But the symbolic importance of hooking up directly to China's 16,000-kilometer, high-speed national rail network in this case overrode both economic and humanitarian concerns.

For the government and its supporters, the rail link is a metaphor for Hong Kong's future inter-connectivity with the mainland. For protesters, it is a boondoggle genuflection to Beijing. And the raging controversy no doubt reinforces Beijing's fears about granting full democracy to Hong Kong, another of the post-1980 generation's demands, which is also guaranteed within 50 years of the handover in Hong Kong's constitution, the Basic Law.

Many of the same demonstrators who laid siege to Legco were among the throngs that turned out for a New Year's Day pro-democracy protest during which dozens attempted to breach a 1,000-strong police cordon outside the Central Government Liaison Office, which represents Beijing in Hong Kong. Once the protesters were repelled, the demonstration carried on peacefully, but the office's director, Peng Qinghua, who rarely speaks in public, was alarmed enough to issue an appeal for calm.

"While we respect citizens' expression of various views and demands, we hope these expressions can take place in a rational and peaceful atmosphere," Peng said. "If some actions which are too radical arise in the process, this is against the expectation of citizens. We hope in the future, rational discussion can be conducted on major political, economic and livelihood issues in Hong Kong."

Trade unionist Cheng Yiu-tong, a delegate to China's National People's Congress (NPC), went further, saying of the protesters, "If the majority of people are like that, Beijing will have to send troops here."

The chief executive, who during his annual duty visit to Beijing last month was advised by Premier Wen Jiabao to address "deep-rooted conflicts" in Hong Kong society, added his own condemnation of the Legco siege.

"The irresponsible behavior of some protesters trying to storm into Legco violated the core values of Hong Kong, the spirit of the rule of law and the general interests of society," Tsang said. "The government and the general public will absolutely not accept such behavior."

The problem for Tsang is the stronger the pleas, warnings and threats from Beijing and the Hong Kong government become, the more emboldened the protesters. Hong Kong people have voiced opinions that the demonstrators, most of whom did conduct themselves in a peaceful fashion, have a point to make.

Another case of the distance between the government and the people was the resignation from Legco of five popularly elected pan-democratic lawmakers on Tuesday. Their political stunt has triggered by-elections in which the issue will be a call for a de facto referendum on universal suffrage for Hong Kong and "an uprising" against the government.

Since it was proposed months ago, the resignation and by-elections, which will cost taxpayers HK$150 million to stage, and has created divisions among the democrats themselves, was widely seen as ill conceived, unnecessary and, because of low voter turnout for by-elections in the past, unlikely to demonstrate a mandate for universal suffrage or anything else. Pan-democrats could even lose one or more of their seats in the by-elections - all for the purpose of sending a message to Beijing about democracy that has already been sent many times and in many forms before, critics warned.

As the time for the resignations approached, however, skittish leaders in Beijing felt compelled to issue another rhetorical blast, with China's State Council denouncing the effort as a violation of the Chinese constitution and the Basic Law.

"No matter how different the opinions on the constitutional development of [Hong Kong] were", the council statement said, "the Basic Law should be obeyed".

As if on cue, the biggest pro-Beijing party in Legco, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, followed the statement by expressing qualms about taking part in the by-elections, and the smaller Liberal Party has already backed out.

Now that the central government has turned what had previously been perceived as a hare-brained scheme into a potential constitutional crisis, pan-democrats are even more determined to press forward, and interest in the by-elections has never been greater.

The blood of the post-1980 generation may be about to boil again.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.