(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 10 December 2014.)
Political activism by youths here is often explained as a conflict between an older generation primarily interested in economic comforts and a younger generation more concerned with democratic ideals and social justice.
This is what I call the radical democratic narrative. Generational conflict, an old idea, offers the optimistic message of eventual triumph by the young and the fulfillment of radical democratic hopes.
But for this narrative to be correct, the activists must stick with their convictions into old age. There is as yet no strong research or good theory to suggest this happens.
The counter narrative advanced by the establishment is that political activism is the consequence of youths’ downward economic mobility (or lack of upward economic mobility), a recent phenomenon in Hong Kong.
The proposed policy remedy is a youth policy to alleviate downward economic mobility.
I find the establishment narrative also seriously unconvincing.
Youth downward economic mobility is merely part of a general phenomenon of rising poverty and inequality that has been on going in Hong Kong and most other industrialized nations for the past 20 to 40 years. Just exactly how much downward mobility there is in Hong Kong has not even been properly measured.
Real median household income has been stagnant since the 1990s, even though real GDP per worker has continued to rise at about 3.8% a year (see Figure 1).
Low- and middle-income individuals in Hong Kong have been particularly affected, prompting worries that the socio-economic woes will worsen. Hong Kong is not unique in this. Youth downward economic mobility is only one manifestation of a more general problem.
It is not obvious to me that our government recognizes the full complexity of our economic situation. Nor do I believe the problem has been sufficiently well researched. There are at least seven areas of concern:
First, our service economy brings wealth to the few and sinks the middle class that is the bedrock of workable democratic political institutions.
Second, land usage and property redevelopment have not changed in step with Hong Kong’s transition into a service economy and this is holding back economic development and rejuvenation.
Third, our education system is not producing the right mix of graduates for our economy.
Fourth, rapidly ageing demographic trends point to almost zero-growth in the working age population from now until the end of the 21st century. We need to totally revise our human capital investment approach to address the shortfall, including immigration policy.
Fifth, the proportion of single parent families has been rising rapidly, especially among low-income families, due to very high divorce rates, with long-term detrimental effects likely for many youths.
Sixth, early childhood policy intervention measures to help the underprivileged, especially those aged below six, are falling seriously short.
And seventh, these factors cannot be addressed unless our political and governance processes regain effectiveness and legitimacy. This means reforming the present method for electing the Chief Executive and the legislators, and getting the executive and legislative branches of government to work together again.
Although Hong Kong has problems of rising poverty, growing inequality and a sinking middle class, it is general dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of government and the political process that is fuelling political activism. Compared with other industrialized countries, Hong Kong is doing quite well economically, with unemployment rate staying in the low single digits for a long time.
I believe the relationship between political activism and youth downward mobility is not direct. What Hong Kong urgently needs to address is not economic upward mobility, but political upward mobility so we can get on with the normal business of governing and dealing with the many social and economic challenges that we face.
Is there a generational conflict? Maybe, but it is most likely exaggerated. Is youth downward economic mobility causing political radicalization? Maybe, but the lack of political upward mobility is more to the point.