To the limited extent they’ve been led at all, the protests in Hong Kong have been led by students of remarkably tender age: Joshua Wong is 17; Lester Shum is 21; Alex Wang, a grizzled elder by comparison, is 24. Such has been the case in Hong Kong for many years, as each generation of politically engaged, pro-democracy youth has given way to the next.
In June 1997, just before Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control, Christopher Hitchens visited the city and wrote in his Nation column about his visits to “a joint called Club 64…. At first look, it could be a hangout for any group of wised -up young people anywhere on the globalized globe. But put a slash between the 6 and the 4, and you have the date—the fourth of June—on which the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred in 1989.”
Hitchens also visited the headquarters of the Hong Kong Confederate of Trade Unions, on Peking Road:
There were the tottering piles of strike leaflets and the posters about child labor in Western brand-name factories. Here were the grizzled old militants, some of them refugees from the mainland, and the young idealist volunteers. (I mention it in a whisper, but there were a few Trotskyist news sheets lying about.) Here you can pick up the fact sheets about concealed unemployment, about the gross maltreatment of women workers, about the meaning of ‘minimum wage’ in a Tiger economy and about the limited number of bathroom passes issued to laborers on the shift and on the assembly line. (In many cases, these passes must be worn around the beck for the brief period of their validity.) I saw no copies of Mao Zedong’s famous study On Contradiction. But possibly there is no contradiction in this transition, perhaps the only assumption of power by a Communist Party that has ever been not just historically inevitable but organized on a strict bureaucratic timetable. The young people at Club 64, and the workers at Peking Road, are at present considered by all experts to be on the wrong side of history. But history also teaches us that such judgments can be premature.
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In early 1984, amid negotiations between the United Kingdom and China over the fate of Hong Kong, The Nation published an article by Gregory C. Staple titled “Future Shock Hits Hong Kong,” about the impending integration of the city and mainland economies. Staple warned that “the road to such economic integration is likely to have many surprises,” including an influx of visitors and migrants from the mainland. His piece concluded:
The bulk of Hong Kong’s new working class cannot leave—the young people who toil for McDonald’s, drive taxis in Hong Kong Central, run countless sewing machines in Wanchai’s back alleys and dance to David Bowie at their favorite clubs. It is the energy of that generation that will ultimately decide Hong Kong’s future prosperity, whatever promises are written into the fourth Hong Kong treaty by aging men and women in London and Beijing.
I recently spoke with Staple on the phone—he is now CEO of the American Clean Skies Foundation—and asked him about his 1984 article and the current protests in Hong Kong.
“I was quite younger then,” he recalled, “and it just struck me that Hong Kong was so full of life; there was so much energy and such a commitment to make it a special place.”
He was skeptical of the effort by Great Britain and China to strike a deal about Hong Kong’s future without sufficient input from those it would most directly affect. “I’ve always felt that paper deals made from a distance are one thing, but another thing is how they’re going to work out on the ground,” he said. “We’re seeing that right now, as we’ve seen it over the past few decades, as there have been waves of democracy demonstrations.”
Asked whether he felt the protests in Hong Kong today bear out his point at the end of the 1984 article, Staple reflected: “This is a much younger generation than the one I was writing about. These kids hadn’t been born yet when I wrote that article, though many of there parents were democracy activists. It’s sort of an echo generation.”
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