Many activists in Hong Kong have dared to confront police during recent pro-democracy demonstrations. In fact, more than 500 protesters stood their ground against authorities by refusing to leave a sit-in in early July and were arrested for it.
But some of those same people are struggling to muster similar courage at the dinner table to argue with their parents about political reform.
The older generation tends to support the status quo; they believe protests and occupations will bring political and economic instability. The younger generation are determined to fight for genuine democracy risking their future careers. This tension is usually reflected in conversation during family meals.
China has promised Hong Kong a direct vote for the next chief executive in 2017 instead of election via committee, but insists that a committee approve the candidates. Former British colony Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China and enjoys a high level of autonomy from the communist country under the idea of “one country, two systems.”
Given that China considers “love of country” to be an important criteria for Hong Kong's administrators, according to a recently released white paper from the government, protesters suspect Hong Kong will only have pro-Beijing candidates to choose from, defeating the purpose of a direct vote.
Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have taken to the streets and 800,000 have signed an unofficial referendum demanding the right to nominate the candidates in recent weeks. The protest movement Occupy Central with Love and Peace has promised to peacefully take over downtown Hong Kong if authorities don't concede.
Despite the vocal opposition, the Hong Kong government presented its report on electoral reform last week and concluded that mainstream opinion doesn't support citizen nomination. The report also suggests restricting the number of candidates to two or three.
Pro-Beijing civic groups have formed an alliance to collect signatures against the Occupy Central campaign, claiming that it would destroy the city's economy. The effort has so far gathered 380,000 signatures over the weekend, with a goal of 800,000.
The mobilization on both fronts has resulted in political divides within families and among friends.
Li Fung Ling, a university student who supports the Occupy Central campaign, addressed her weakness in dealing with dinner table politics on citizen media platform inmediahk.net. Her mother told her she would join the signature campaign against Occupy Central because she believed that the protesters are creating chaos in Hong Kong. Li remained silent. She explained her difficulty in confronting her parents:
My parents, though born in Hong Kong, were the poorest social class in the 1970s. They had never received a good education and spent their lives working in a company founded by some people from Fujian, China. For them, they don't see the value of Hong Kong. Even human beings do not carry much value. The most important thing is to keep the stomach full. […]
They believe that people have to learn how to “adapt.” Now that China is wealthy and leading the economic development of Hong Kong, people here are well fed and should not complain about not having respect. Perhaps, had they not endure humiliation throughout their lives, they could not provide me with all the material needs for my upbringing. Now that I have received an education, should I use what I have learned about democracy to confront them and criticize their cynicism? I can't make myself do that. Forgive me for the absence of wit to explain my thoughts.
To address the difficulty in cross-generational communication on politics, anonymous Facebook user “Letter to Babamama” drafted a letter to encourage activists to “come out” to their parents:
Perhaps you will scold me or even beat me, but I have to be honest to you. I participated in the Occupy Central rehearsal sit-in on July 2 and was arrested. It was a peaceful action. No one got hurt. The arrest did not leave any criminal record. I was afraid to tell you about this because I don't want to start a family argument and make you sad. […]
I love both of you and I love Hong Kong. I hope you know that we are not creating chaos. I hope that you know we believe in peace. Before the Occupy Central action, I have tried so many other ways. I participated in elections [district and legislative council elections], I rallied and joined peaceful protests. I wrote countless opinions to the government. Like other Hong Kong people, we expressed our discontent through different legal means, but the government just plays dumb with us again and again. Hong Kong people have compromised too much. […]
Please believe in your shy little boy.
A Facebook page called “Politics with relatives” shared another story of a family confrontation. The parents believed that all protests are driven by foreign forces. A protest against the development of Hong Kong's Northeast New Territories into two towns for more housing came up in conversation. Opponents fear that the 614-hectare project, of which less than 96 hectares or 16 percent is allocated for residential purposes, will destroy Hong Kong's remaining farming communities.
The father exclaimed that the police should arrest all the “young losers” and jail them for a decade. The son could not remain silent anymore and burst into tears while he used the calculator to demonstration to his father how he would become a “loser” under the current state of government-corporate collusion:
I told my father: Let's say I received a monthly salary of 15,000 Hong Kong dollars [equivalent to 2,000 US dollars] upon graduation. How many years would it take for me to have the down payment for a 300-square-foot apartment in Tin Shui Wai [the cheapest district in Hong Kong]? How much would I have to pay for the monthly mortgage? And at what age could I afford to have children? I apologized to my father that he paid so much for my education, but I could not feed myself and I probably would have to live with my parents into my thirties. The government colludes with the corporations and transfers public resources to the pocket of property developers. We work like slaves and I feel really angry and helpless.
After my outburst, my father remained silence for a long time. It seems the he has adjusted his stance a little bit.
Although he continued to believe the government's claims that the Northeast New Territories development project would solve the land supply problem, he would not say that the protesters were paid by the U.S. and became less hostile to the protesters.
A small victory, perhaps, but small victories can make a difference, if not for the future of Hong Kong, then for the future of family dinners.