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In Hong Kong, a Young Generation of Protesters Fights for the Future

The students who have sustained Hong Kong's protest movement are praised for their conduct, but haven't been as successful winning over older generations at home.
October 13, 2014, 11:15pm
Photo by Steven Hsieh

At about 4 AM on a recent morning, a group of young protesters lounged in the middle of an eight-lane street in Hong Kong, strumming guitars and singing under the billboards and skyscrapers of the Central district, the city's financial heart. They teased one another and flirted, drinking beer and smoking Marlboros.

"Protesters need to relax too," a 22-year-old named Gary Cheung told VICE News. He had just worked a day-long volunteer shift at a resource tent up the road, taking donations and handing out water to his fellow demonstrators.

Few would have tolerated alcohol or live music in the main protest area a week ago. In the early days of the Occupy Central sit-in, students enforced a strict code of conduct to prove their maturity to Hong Kong, Beijing, and the rest of the world. The millennials who sparked and sustained an unprecedented civil disobedience movement in Asia's financial hub have since become international media darlings, widely praised for their peaceful and orderly approach to resistance. They had earned the right to a little fun.

The students have not been as successful winning over older generations at home, however. Parents worry about their children's safety after the heavy-handed police crackdown on a student rally in late September and attacks on demonstrations from anti-Occupy mobs, which have included reports of physical and sexual assault. Shop owners, transportation workers, and residents are becoming increasingly frustrated with the pro-democracy occupations outside their windows, which have choked major thoroughfares and slowed business.

After talks fail, protesters dig in as thousands return to the streets of Hong Kong. Read more here.

"The students are blocking the road. We are losing money," Chong Wing Tong, a 55-year-old taxi driver, told VICE News as he marched with hundreds against the Occupy Central movement. "If you want to protest, that is your business. Everyone has their views. But don't involve us."

While workers and older citizens have supported the students and participated in the demonstrations, it's clear that there is a generational gap over their tactics. One of the many banners hanging from pedestrian bridges in the Admiralty district reads, "My parents are crying for me. I am crying for the future."

(Photo by Steven Hsieh)

The young protesters recognize the disruption caused by their civil disobedience. Fliers posted across demonstration areas read, "Sorry for the inconvenience." But the students regard the inconvenience and any resentment it may cause as necessary tradeoffs for the integrity of their future.

The student protesters object to a plan that will grant mainland officials the ability to vet all candidates for the 2017 chief executive election. Students feel that the plan signals the erosion of Hong Kong's "One Country, Two Systems" framework, which grants the territory's citizens a degree of political and economic autonomy that their mainland China counterparts do not enjoy.

After Hong Kong officials backed out of talks with protesters last week, the student leader Joshua Wong — who celebrated his 18th birthday on Monday — urged protesters to bring out mattresses and tents for "long-term civil disobedience actions." But the encampments can't last forever, and many students are already looking beyond Occupy.

Beijing supporters clash with pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong. Read more here.

"The education here tends to be internationally focused, so students are reading a lot of political philosophy, they're reading about other forms of governance, and since many are wealthy, they are traveling and seeing other ways of life," Yvonne Chiu, assistant professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong, told VICE News. "That's showing them that even though they have a good life, that their life is better than those of their parents. They can look at other parts of the world and want more."

But while Hong Kong's middle class has benefited from steady economic growth, students now face a less promising outlook. Property values are skyrocketing. Opportunities are shrinking. The city's wealth gap is one of the widest in the developed world. When the British ceded Hong Kong to China in 1997, the territory represented 18 percent of the country's GDP. Today, that number hovers around three percent.

'Adults have their careers, their families. We only have ourselves and all this time — for what? Jacking off?'

Charlie Lam, a 24-year-old doctoral student at the University of Hong Kong, told VICE News that he hopes the Umbrella Movement marks beginning of a wider political awakening for his generation.

"Even if we have a fair and square election system in 2017, it would take a lot more effort and time to really change, for example, the collusion between the government and big corporations, or the lack of social welfare in Hong Kong," he said.

But the 2017 election plan presents the most urgent challenge to the millennial future, Lam added. He believes protesters need to do whatever they can to protect One Country, Two Systems.

"Many of us cannot afford to immigrate to another country, so for a lot of us there is no choice but to remain in this place because of economic issues, because of identity issues," Lam said. "We realize we're stuck here, so we have no choice to make this into a better place."

Elizabeth Chao, Lam's mother, knew there was nothing she could do to stop her son from joining student rallies in Admiralty in late September, where he transcribed lectures and spread the word on social media. She told VICE News over the phone that she didn't understand Charlie's political views or activism.

"I asked Charlie, 'Why are we so different? We are from the same family.' And his answer is we have very different education backgrounds," Chao said.

A 53-year-old secretary who earned a high school diploma, she added, "One Person, One Vote is not important to me. I didn't even register as a voter. Charlie was very angry with me for not registering. What's important to me is having a job, having income."

Though middle class, Chao shares the same values as many of the working-class residents opposed to Occupy Central. The visible tension between workers and student encampments poses the greatest threat to the pro-democracy movement.

Hong Kong chief executive won't resign despite massive protests, as China issues ominous warning. Read more here.

On Monday, a mob of taxi and truck drivers and alleged Triad gang members were cheered by residents as they attempted to tear down makeshift barricades cordoning off the protesters' demonstration area. The students resisted, reinforcing their barriers with bamboo and garbage bins. But today's clash will not be the last. If workers and students are seen as pitted against one another rather than the government, the movement could lose a lot of the goodwill it has generated.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, the embattled head of Hong Kong, said on Sunday that pro-democracy activists have "almost zero chance" of winning any concessions from Beijing. Most of the student protesters who spoke with VICE News appeared to agree, noting that they are playing a long game, one that could last for years or even decades.

"Adults have their careers, their families. We only have ourselves and all this time — for what? Jacking off? Video games?" remarked Cheung, the 22-year-old protester. "I'm young, but I'm thinking about the next generation. If my child asks me 20 years from now what I was doing 20 years ago, I don't want to say I was watching TV. I want to say, 'I fought for you.' "

Follow Steven Hsieh on Twitter: @stevenjhsieh