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Hong Kong’s ‘handover kids’ feel growing unease over China’s influence

Pro-democracy activists hold photos of detained activists in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Chung Yick is one of Hong Kong’s handover kids – he was born in 1997, the same year China took control of his home city from Britain, putting an end to more than 150 years of colonial rule.

This Saturday marks 20 years from the day that handover was completed, a jubilant moment for China with few parallels in its history under the Communist Party. The anniversary is being similarly marked by the Beijing political establishment as a landmark milestone. On Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped off a plane in Hong Kong for the first time since becoming China’s top leader. “I feel very happy as Hong Kong has always been in my heart,” he said, promising Beijing will “always support Hong Kong’s development and improvement of livelihood.”

Mr. Chung will mark the anniversary more sombrely. His generation has only known life under Beijing and, for them, their city’s long embrace of the financial gain from a rising China has been clouded by a growing unease over the ways the two have become harder to distinguish.

Mr. Xi on Thursday promised the city’s distinctiveness “is stable and has a far-reaching future.”

But his arrival was greeted with protests. Pride in Hong Kong “is fading along with the integration” that has taken place since 1997, says Mr. Chung, who studies government and laws at the University of Hong Kong.

“Politically, economically or culturally, we are getting more and more dependent on China.”

It’s not an outlier view. In spirit and in outlook, the handover kids are a generation apart, despondent about their future under Beijing’s control, rejecting the Chinese identity their parents celebrate and loudly declaring their desire for a different future than the one they see already drawing near from across the border in mainland China.

It was handover kids who helped to swell the Umbrella protests, and a series of others that have shaken the city since 2012, when students took to the streets against a new Chinese patriotic curriculum. And it will be handover kids who will likely occupy positions of economic and political influence in 2047, the expiry year for China’s pledge to maintain Hong Kong as a distinct place under the “one country, two systems” framework.

But many of this new generation are “not entirely a happy bunch, nor all that confident about what’s going to happen to them,” said Simon Young, director of research at the University of Hong Kong department of law.

“The Hong Kong today is very different from the one in 1997,” said Jason Ng, a Hong Kong writer who chronicled the 2014 Umbrella Movement that occupied the city’s downtown. He also helped to assemble an anthology, Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place.

The city, he said, “is a much angrier, more polarized and unequal place.” He added: “We can’t blame the young for being disillusioned and frustrated.”

To understand their perspective, and Hong Kong’s changing position in greater China, The Globe and Mail interviewed more than a half-dozen of the brightest handover kids – both in Hong Kong and in Shenzhen, the neighbouring Chinese city whose rapid growth from a fishing village to a global high-tech hub is among the country’s most extraordinary success stories.

The contrast between the two cities has underpinned the most common narrative about Hong Kong, that the city’s star has dimmed even as China’s has grown into a supernova. Over the past 20 years, Hong Kong’s per-capita GDP rose 60 per cent. In Shenzhen, it’s up 600 per cent. In Shenzhen’s wealthiest district, Nanshan, average wealth now exceeds that of Hong Kong.

But 20 years after the handover, what is equally striking are the parallels between life for the 1997 generation on both sides of the bridges and tunnels that link the two places.

On both sides, parents built careers and wealth in times of relative plenty. Now, even the brightest of minds look to the future with a sense of angst – and they share concerns, too, about the direction China is taking.

Take housing: On both sides, housing pressures are extreme – it takes 18 years of a median household income to buy a median-priced house in Hong Kong, which is frequently ranked the least affordable city on earth. But those rankings don’t often look at Shenzhen, which is equally unaffordable.

Or take fears that the freewheeling social mobility that once brought wealth to the industrious has been replaced by more rigid workplaces and less penetrable ceilings.

“Social mobility in Hong Kong is not as great as my parents’ generation,” said Wong Chiyiu, a top Hong Kong graduate now studying psychology at the University of Hong Kong.

“In the past if you got a good degree your future was basically guaranteed. Now it’s not the same.”

But in Shenzhen, too, “we have less opportunity than [our parents’] generation. So we need to be even more hard working, even more competitive, even better,” said Huang Sijia, a Shenzhen graduate now enrolled at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Adding to the worries in Hong Kong is the belief that the balance of future possibilities has tilted toward China, where “the space is less crowded in many senses – the job opportunities, the land itself, the room for development,” said Alex Bi, a Shenzhen graduate now studying government in the United States.

China “is a rising power. You would say Hong Kong is sort of in a declining situation, both in politics and economy.”

He shares with those in Hong Kong a bleak outlook on the city today, where students and protesters are “trying to maintain a more liberal environment – but that space is being crushed every day by the central government,” he said, referring to Beijing. “They’re struggling for that last bit of their old ways of life. I think that’s just a very bad situation.”

But Mr. Bi also offers a blunt appraisal of life in China.

President Xi has insisted on ideological compliance at universities and presided over a tightening of Internet censorship, in the name of ensuring stability. But it means China is at “a very low point in terms of individual liberties. Probably the lowest in decades,” he said.

Fears that Hong Kong is moving in a similar direction are part of the reason today’s Hong Kong youth are the least likely to identify as Chinese at any time since the handover – a generational shift from elders proud of their heritage. A recent poll by the University of Hong Kong found fewer than 10 per cent of youth in the city identify as “Chinese” or “broadly Chinese.”

At the same time, they are dramatically less likely to trust Beijing or its promises to maintain Hong Kong’s distinctive system of governance.

“Most of the young people are more pessimistic toward the future of Hong Kong. If the government cannot find ways to build or restore the trust of young people, it will probably lead to a governance crisis in the near future,” said Robert Chung, who heads the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme.

Wary of the handover kids, Beijing has threatened to respond with the tactics it uses to ensure control at home. In May, Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Dejiang called for educators to give students the “correct” views on China.

But the handover kids are proud Hong Kongers – and for them, the 20th anniversary also offers a moment to reconsider their home. Glass towers, investment bankers and property billionaires have been Hong Kong’s backbone, but the city’s single-minded pursuit of wealth has also been one of the reasons it has come to share much in common with mainland China, they worry.

“Seeing Hong Kong solely as a financial capital caused decades of reliance and the current dilemma. I would say it is time we changed that kind of thinking and explored something new,” said Mr. Chung.

But he worries the city’s course is unlikely to change – and that as it grows closer to China, it has already lost what once set it apart.

“In my humble view, there is little difference – after all the integration and the foreseeable trends, the border really doesn’t matter.”

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