By Elaine Dunn | September 2021


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In 1904, J.M. Barrie wrote about his “Lost Boys” in “Peter Pan.”  Fast forward to 2021 and the media is writing about the “lost generation” in Afghanistan.  For Hong Kong, its “lost generation” were the students who, in the past decade, became engaged in the political turmoil in the former British colony.


The term “lost generation” was made famous by Ernest Hemingway who used it in his novel “The Sun Also Rises.”  It originally referred to those born between 1883 and 1900 who witnessed and lived through the horrors of the first world war.  Scarred by the aftermath of war, these young adults felt they couldn’t trust the world they had grown up in, and rejected the values they grew up with.  Many lived life with no real goal in mind. 

For the Hong Kongers, this description does not really fit the bill. 

In 2012, Beijing tried to enforce “national education” curriculum, which glorifies the Chinese Communist Party, into Hong Kong textbooks and education curriculum.  Mass protests organized by student groups erupted and the proposed curriculum was withdrawn.  In 2014, Beijing reneged on its promise of universal suffrage by 2017 in restricting electoral reforms.  This led to a 79-day occupation of key financial and traffic points in Hong Kong, also spearheaded by student groups.  (China Insight: October 2014, p. 11; January 2015, p. 3).  In 2019, the Hong Kong government (at Beijing’s bidding) introduced the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill, which also had to be withdrawn later as a result of mass protests.

The protests, especially those of 2014, brought about renewed energy and vested interest in a whole new generation of activists, anxious to safeguard a relatively orderly, unrestricted and metropolitan way of life left behind by 150 years of British rule, a relatively comfortable way of life to which they are accustomed and appreciate.  But as Beijing increased its encroachment on the freedoms of Hong Kong residents, the student activists took a firm stand against the government.  They had grown up under an oppressive power across the northern border.  That in itself was a unifying force for the youth.  It gave them the common purpose to oppose the pro-Beijing government. 

The future of Hong Kong’s young people may appear extremely bleak and uncertain at this point.  However, just like their ancestors who fled the mainland in the 1950s, this generation of post-Tiananmen students are creative, resilient and entrepreneurial.  Call them the “lost generation” if you will, but they will surprise you with their ingenuity – just like using umbrellas to ward off tear gas, gas masks to impede facial recognition apps!  Their response to Beijing’s increasingly repressive legislation had put Beijing’s leadership between fear (of allowing the unrest to continue) and intervention (that might turn out to be a mistake).

But Hong Kong’s “Lost Generation” who marched and protested with gusto in 2014, rejecting Xi Jingping’s Chinese Dream with equal gusto, seemed to have lost steam when none of their demands for democracy came to fruition. With multiple prosecutions and imprisonment stemming from the protests, and Beijing’s high-handed expulsion of lawfully elected pro-democracy members to the Legislative Council, the will to revolt seem strained.  This, coupled with the enactment of the National Security Law, made protesting against Beijing and Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government even more treacherous.

Does their recent silence mean they have given up? Is apathy settling in? If so, it does not bode well for Hong Kong’s future at all.  During the 2018 by-election, statistics show many younger voters did not even bother to cast a ballot.  In this silence lurks danger.

To quote an Opinion piece in HKFP (December 2018), “Where the younger generation actually chooses to speak out these days is in academic surveys on cross-border integration like the one conducted recently by Chu Hai College of Higher Education.  At a time when Hongkongers have witnessed the recent opening of the high-speed express rail link to Guangzhou as well as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau mega bridge — not to mention Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s unqualified endorsement of Beijing’s Greater Bay Area initiative — the survey’s results should give pause to all those who see smooth integration sailing ahead.”  That survey also showed 52.6% of the 1,000-plus 15- to 24-year-olds polled “object to the very concept” of Hong Kong-mainland integration, and 44% expressed no interest in working across the border at all.  The Opinion piece concluded with a message to HK Chief Executive Carrie Lam, saying, “When the government blueprint for the city’s future is wholesale integration but the people who are that future say no way, that’s a big problem … Sorry, Ms Lam, youth commissions led by young millionaires just don’t cut it in Hong Kong anymore.  You had better think and try a lot harder or this generation — and this city — may be permanently lost.”

Lam may not have come up with any viable strategies, but in recent weeks, Beijing has been sending messages about how good life could be for young Hong Kongers, telling them they should embrace the work opportunities offered by mainland China, as their language skills and international outlook give them unique strengths when competing with their counterparts over the border.

“Hong Kong young people understand the three languages – English, Cantonese and Mandarin – and have an internationalised vision. These are their unique competitive advantages in the bay area’s development,” Huang Liuquan, a deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said.  “They can have a bright future as they use their strengths to serve the nation’s needs.”  Huang also promised that Beijing would continue rolling out new initiatives to improve the job prospects of city residents on the mainland, especially in the arts, traditional Chinese medicine and legal sectors.

Perhaps Beijing is keen to recognize the current “lost generation” as the future of Hong Kong.  They can be the movers and shakers down the road.  Therefore, their collective mindset and memories will not sit well with threats, oppressions and restrictions.  The recent turmoil wrought upon this group – brutal crackdowns and jail terms – will not likely make productive workers and members of society out of them.

What to do?  Do not take them for granted.  They are and should not be treated as enemies.  Engage them and provide them adequate tools, knowledge and skills set.  They have the potential to come up with creative solutions.


Tags:  Lost generation, Hong Kong, HK, HK protests, HK democracy, HK freedom


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Pro-democracy protesters use yellow umbrellas as shields against tear gas

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HK police crack down on pro-democracy protesters

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Causes Hong Kong’s “lost generation” stood and fought for


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