When the younger generation gives up, then a city is lost—and that is what is happening in Hong Kong.

At this point in Hong Kong’s history, 21 years after the handover from British to Chinese rule, young people should be fully engaged in the politics of their time. Their leaders should be running for office, offering fresh visions of Hong Kong’s future, and their supporters should be animating those visions with their voices and their votes.

Instead, we see young people largely checked out of the great debate over what the city’s “one country, two systems” framework means today and what it may come to mean in the future.

That’s because, just like the rest of us, they know there can be no real debate when the central government can step in at any moment to silence those it doesn’t want to be heard.

one country two systems flag china
File photo: inmediahk.net.

What’s the point of spending the emotional capital to dive in and speak out on issues that—in the flash of an authoritarian decree issued from the empire to the north or in the kowtowing decision of some local lackey-bureaucrat here at home—can be deemed to cross Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “red line” of loyalty and patriotism?

After all, you have seen a political party banned and duly elected lawmakers ousted from the Legislative Council for crossing that line, while other worthy would-be candidates were barred from running for office altogether for the same perceived offence.

You have seen the best and brightest of your generation jailed for the leading roles they played in the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement, 79 days of daring and hope that ended in failure, disappointment and despair.

Indeed, maybe it was on that last disillusioning day of Occupy that you backed away from politics and decided to turn inward, focusing on personal and career goals you thought were achievable rather than pie-in-the-sky dreams of democracy, doomed to be crushed by the powers-that-be in Beijing.

But disengagement is not as easy as it looks. In the end, there is far more to Hong Kong’s troubled equation than democracy.

public housing
A public housing estate under construction in Cheung Sha Wan. File Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

There’s the city’s wealth gap, one of the worst in the developed world, and a minimum wage that perpetuates rather than alleviates poverty.

For university graduates, there aren’t enough professional and managerial jobs to go around and thus the real possibility of not finding work in their chosen fields of study, and of making less money than the generation of graduates who preceded them.

There’s our bursting-at-the-seams public health care system and the lack of even a hint of a plan for a universal pension for our retirees.

And then there is the mother of all Hong Kong problems: property prices so high that most Hongkongers cannot even dream of one day owning their own home.

This is a challenge that, if not answered, will see many of today’s young people still living with mum and dad well into middle age, perhaps in an illegal firetrap of a subdivided flat, or queuing up for more than five years for a subsidised flat in a public housing estate—if, that is, they are poor enough to qualify.

Young Hongkongers may feel that their futures have been compromised and even stolen by an older generation of leaders whose ears are deaf to their needs and complaints, and public opinion polls certainly show that to be the case.

According to the latest University of Hong Kong survey, confidence in the city’s future is lower than at any time since the university first started polling the public in 1994, and it is the younger generation who are most pessimistic.

Demosisto protest
Demosisto protesters in the government headquarters.

Confidence levels are lower even than when the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic struck the city, killing 299 people and setting off a worldwide panic, or when more than 500,000 people hit the streets to protest at proposed—and eventually shelved—national security legislation that could have curtailed freedom of assembly and speech in the city.

Overall, only 39 per cent of the 1,000 survey respondents expressed confidence in Hong Kong’s future while 55 per cent had no confidence, sending a strong message of discontent to the Hong Kong and central governments.

Among those aged 18 to 29 the message was even stronger: 70 per cent said they have no confidence in the city’s future; 25 per cent thought all would be well.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s administration plans to deal with all this dissatisfaction and disenchantment with another flurry of huge infrastructure projects, that Lam promises will solve the housing crisis and also turn Hong Kong into an integral part of what is hopefully dubbed “China’s Silicon Valley.”

Lam’s East Lantau Metropolis is the proffered cure for our housing crunch. The problem is that this massive reclamation scheme, at an estimated cost of HK$624 billion, may drain the public coffers and destroy the marine environment off Lantau without providing a single habitable dwelling before 2032.

Meanwhile, for any government with the political will and courage to take on the Heung Yee Kuk, that mafia-like statutory advisory body devoted to defending anachronistic privileges for indigenous male villagers in the New Territories, there is already more than enough land to solve Hong Kong’s housing woes.

signs lantau protest reclamation
Protesters oppose Carrie Lam’s Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Lam’s so-called Lantau Tomorrow Vision is just a grander and more reckless version of the tired old build-it-and-the-problem-will-be-solved strategy so beloved by a succession of Hong Kong governments dating back to colonial times.

Hongkongers are understandably sceptical if not downright alarmed by a project that, in the end, is likely to cost over a trillion Hong Kong dollars and wreak environmental havoc.

As for the Greater Bay Area initiative that will link Hong Kong to Macau and nine mainland cities with the aim of creating an integrated business and technology hub, that, too, is a hard sell in Hong Kong; most people, especially young people, have no desire to live or work on the mainland.

It also raises vexing questions about how one country, two systems would apply, or not, in this colossal new geographical entity.

Huge infrastructure projects might go down easier here if the Hong Kong government worked a lot harder to build trust with those it purports to govern before building bridges, roads, tunnels and railways to connect us to a colossus that many Hongkongers, our younger generation in particular, continue to regard with, at best, ambivalence and, at worst, outright hostility.

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.