Hong Kong’s younger generation, especially its university students, have taken quite a beating over the past couple of weeks—chastised and berated by a formidable phalanx of critics including our chief executive, legislative councillors, university heads, school principals and prominent columnists in the mainstream media.

In addition to being stupidly naive, idealistic and rebellious, our young people are considered “callous and insulting.” They are “cold-blooded.” They have “no sense of decency.” They have lost all “empathy.” Their behaviour is “shameful.” Worst of all, they keep saying and doing things that are “in violation of our country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and development interests.”

And it’s all because of bad men like Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who should be tossed off the law faculty at the University of Hong Kong for corrupting the city’s youth with insidious ideas of democracy and civil disobedience.

benny tai rally
Pro-Beijing demonstrators at a rally calling for Benny Tai to be sacked from HKU.

Let’s put a dunce cap on the wayward professor’s head, hang a sign around his neck and march him through the city’s streets in a well-deserved walk of shame. And that’s before we throw him in jail with his younger counterparts in the 2014 Occupy campaign—the 79-day embarrassment that trained the world’s attention on broken promises and poor governance in Hong Kong.

Or, alternatively, we could thank Professor Tai as well as Hong Kong’s younger generation for keeping this city’s hopes and dreams alive under unprecedented pressure from the powers that be in Beijing and their yes-men and women in the Hong Kong government. Without them and many others who have supported their efforts, 20 years before the Sino-British Joint Declaration is set to expire in 2047, Hong Kong would have already capitulated to its northern masters and become just another Chinese city operating under the thumb of Communist Party leaders.

As things stand, central authorities have a fight on their hands, and their worn-out authoritarian strategies simply aren’t working.

Stern warnings about what we can and cannot talk about from liaison office chief Zhang Xiaoming, No. 3 state leader Zhang Dejiang and even President Xi Jinping himself—none of these have succeeded in crushing the city’s independent spirit and halting its stubborn quest to retain its core values and unique identity as a special administrative region of China. The ousting of duly elected pro-democracy lawmakers from the Legislative Council (Legco) and the aforementioned jailing of young Occupy leaders have also failed to stop the resistance to Beijing’s persistent endeavours to bring Hong Kong to heel.

Occupy Central Leaders
Occupy Central with Love and Peace founders Chan Kin Man, Benny Tai and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming in 2015.

Look to Macau as the SAR we don’t want to be—kowtowing to the Chinese leadership, stifling government critics, banning entry to reporters, relying on the People’s Liberation Army to clean up the mess left by Typhoon Hato and sucking up mainland cash to keep its casino economy afloat. By comparison, Hong Kong’s refusal to be cowed by the central government and their local minions is downright inspiring.

Whenever things go awry, however—when fences and barriers are ignored and Legco doors forced open, when profanity flies on university campuses and personal attack supplants rational dialogue—government officials and their supporters are quick to condemn their critics for their law-breaking lack of civility and moral turpitude.

By and large, however—with the Mong Kok riot being a notable exception—protests against the central and Hong Kong governments have been peaceful, orderly and eminently civilised, especially during the nearly three months of Occupy.

But it is also clear that people are becoming frustrated and angry because their voices are ridiculed and ignored. The result can be ugly, as we have seen recently at Education University in a battle of duelling posters competing in a contest of insensitivity and tastelessness.

The first anonymous poster crassly congratulated the recently installed Beijing-friendly undersecretary for education, Christine Choi Yuk-lin, after her 25-year-old son’s suicide plunge from the 41st floor of a luxury residential tower in Yau Ma Tei. Not to be outdone, two days later the authors of a second poster, also anonymous, offered congratulations to Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo “for going west” (a reference to his death from liver cancer in July while he was still serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion) and to his wife, Liu Xia, for her prolonged house arrest on the mainland.

choi yuk-lin education secretary son death signs
Signs saying “Congratulations Choi Yuk-lin on the death of your son” appeared on top of other signs protesting the removal of banners advocating independence on Education University’s Democracy Wall. Photo: Chung Kim Wah/Facebook.

Heartless and mean-spirited, yes, foolish and sophomoric even more so—but no reason for the government to go to war over the limits of freedom of speech in Hong Kong, especially when such unsavoury stunts were then falsely likened to other posters appearing on university campuses advocating Hong Kong’s independence from China.

The two cases are quite different—one an ugly, below-the-belt attack on an unpopular public official with an equally distasteful follow-up targeting Liu Xiaobo, the other a political statement that burns in the ears of our overseers in Beijing. Both, however, qualify as free speech.

Free speech means just that—the freedom to be tasteless, the freedom to be foolish, the freedom to be young, naive and idealistic enough to believe that Hong Kong could stand on its own as an independent city-state.

And, of course, it also means the freedom to stand opposed to all of the above.

It’s what makes Hong Kong special; we don’t want to lose it.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.