Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bernard Chan: Today's young 'radicals', tomorrow's visionaries

南華早報 SCMP

EDT15 | EDT | By Bernard Chan 2011-02-25

Today's young 'radicals', tomorrow's visionaries

In late 2009 and early 2010, the government had a nasty shock as it tried to push through plans for the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou. Opposition from some quarters was very fierce. The opponents organised in ways that left our officials looking out of touch. Hong Kong's leaders learned the hard way about the power of the internet in mobilising protesters.

Since then, uprisings in Arab countries have shown the power of new technology. The users of these tools are overwhelmingly young.

The siege of the Legislative Council and protests over Choi Yuen Tsuen that started two years ago may have marked a turning point in Hong Kong politics. These young people, later labelled the post-80s generation, had protested over the Star Ferry and Queen's Pier. But the scale of their activities and their use of technology was a wake-up call.

The government's reaction - to boost its online presence on networks such as Facebook - missed the point. Simply using digital media does not put one in touch with younger people. Indeed, to some younger activists, it came across like an older person trying to be trendy.

That was because officials stuck to their belief: the problem was that opponents failed to understand the government's (obviously correct) case. The idea that the activists might have their own correct views simply did not register.

The new technology is a remarkable tool for activists, as we have seen in Arab countries. But it does not by itself create support or opposition for particular camps or causes. It is neutral. Its effectiveness depends on people and ideas.

For those of us born before 1980, a look at the young activists' internet sites is a bit like looking into a different world. A good example is, which trains citizen reporters and publishes news and comment on society and politics.

There is little or no overlap with mainstream media here. In this online print, radio and TV channel, people simply do not share the establishment's beliefs about the benefits of development and big business. To InMediaHK contributors and readers, it is taken for granted that neighbourhoods, heritage, countryside, traditional communities and small businesses have priority.

And here is the most shocking thing: many of the thousands of young people reading such sites get little or none of their news from mainstream media, which of course is where the government's own voice is heard. Or perhaps I should put that in a different way: many of the hundreds of older people making government policy get little or none of their input from channels like InMediaHK.

It is not just officials who are cut off from this younger movement; our older activist and opposition groups, such as political parties and unions, are also remote from this community of young activists.

Members of the older generation might point out that these young activists are a minority and not typical of their age group. But it seems to me that they are an important and highly aware part of the community who will grow in influence.

Some 30 years ago, people like Martin Lee Chu-ming and Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee formed a discussion group of young people interested in Hong Kong's future. To colonial authorities, they were radicals and maybe even potentially dangerous; looking back, they just wanted the more open society we now take for granted.

The post-80s activists may seem alarming today. But I wonder whether, in a few decades, Hong Kong will have cleaner air, more sensitive, people-based planning, and more focus on quality of life rather than raw growth and construction as an end in itself. If so, digital media may have helped, but people with new ideas will deserve the credit.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils

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