Taipei, Taiwan – “Should I stay or should I go?” This is the question facing many of Hong Kong’s young people, 25 years after the city returned to Chinese rule.
At the time of the handover in 1997, Beijing promised the former British colony 50 years of self-government, as well as civil and political rights that do not exist on the Communist Party-ruled mainland. But Beijing’s intensifying crackdown on the city’s freedoms – including a national security law passed in 2020 that has stamped out practically all dissent – has irrevocably altered life for the people of Hong Kong.
“The things that we assumed that would always be here just gradually faded, like the system itself, like freedom of speech, press freedom, all of this, and we lost faith in our government,” said Iris, a 25-year-old Hong Konger who was born in the year of the handover.
“Overall, our generation is pretty hopeless about the future,” she said, asking that only her first name be used. The office worker said many Hong Kong people see her generation as “cursed”.
Hong Kongers born at about the time of the handover grew up in an atmosphere of resistance to Beijing’s encroachment on their way of life. They were children during mass demonstrations against a proposed national security law in 2003 and teenagers during the 2014 Occupy Central protests triggered by Beijing’s refusal to allow direct elections for the city’s leader.
Those demonstrations were followed in 2019 by mass protests against plans to allow extraditions to the mainland. The protests, which began peacefully before descending into violence, expanded to include calls for greater autonomy and even independence from Beijing.
Beijing responded the following year by imposing draconian national security legislation banning vaguely defined acts of subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces. Since then, most of the city’s political opposition has been jailed or forced into exile, dozens of civil society organisations have disbanded, and critical and independent media outlets have been forced to close. Under a sweeping overhaul of the electoral system, only candidates deemed to be “patriots” can contest seats in the city’s legislative chamber.
Against the backdrop of diminishing freedoms, nearly 60 percent of young people expressed a desire to emigrate in 2021, according to a survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. As a group, young Hong Kongers are more politically active than older residents, with surveys conducted in 2019 showing that some 87 percent of those aged 18-29 supported the pro-democracy protests and 63 percent saying they had personally taken part.
Hong Kongers aged under 25 have fewer options to escape the city’s new political reality than older residents. While those born before the July 1, 1997, handover are entitled to a British National Overseas passport, which since last year has provided a pathway for residency in the United Kingdom, younger residents must look to employment, study or family channels to emigrate.
“As someone who was born in 1997, sometimes you feel like your future has already been decided by people who were born before 1997, and you are not part of the conversation of what your future looks like,” said Anna, who asked to be identified only by her first name.
The 25-year-old political activist has been living in exile outside of Hong Kong since getting involved in running Telegram channels that were used in organising the 2019 protests. Such activities have landed other protesters with lengthy jail sentences.
Anna said the decision had been difficult for her and her family – one that not all young Hong Kongers are able or ready to make.
Gary Pui-fung Wong, a lecturer at Leeds University whose research includes Hong Kong’s cultural history, said the combined pressures of being a Hong Konger and a young person are a potent mix.
Many people in their 20s are going through a transitional phase as they begin to think more seriously about their future careers and family prospects, Wong said. Even before 2019, he said, this was difficult in Hong Kong, where renting – let alone buying – a flat is out of reach for most young people.
“At the moment they need to consider the future of the city into their own personal plan,” Wong told Al Jazeera.
“If the integration of Hong Kong into the Chinese mainland continues then this city may be facing some fundamental change, so they need to think about migration and especially if the UK and Canada are opening up options for some [university] graduates to move.”
For young Hong Kongers who have chosen to stay in the city, some have found a purpose through the city’s localist movement. The movement, which emerged over the past 15 years, has sought to preserve the difference between Hong Kong and mainland China, whether it is the Cantonese language, colonial-era architecture, or cha chaan teng cafes that serve hybrid Western-Cantonese cuisine.
Jen, a 25-year-old Hong Konger who runs a cultural space and carries out research into Hong Kong culture, said exploring the city’s culture can allow a modicum of free expression even as overtly political activism is restricted.
“I think a lot of people are talking about migrating to another place, but I feel that after 2019, a lot of people have also become interested in – or feel the importance of – researching and understanding Hong Kong culture,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I do feel that there’s something that can be done [here], providing space for different cultural events. We cannot do large-scale protests or celebrate June 4 [the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square killings in Beijing], but that doesn’t mean everything has stopped. I want to continue with small-scale stuff.”
Olivia, a media worker born around the time of the handover, said that while she is mentally preparing for more draconian changes, such as the closure of her media outlet, she has found solace in her community.
“Even though we cannot make our voice [heard], we can still connect to people who are around us,” Olivia told Al Jazeera, requesting to only be referred to by her first name.
Recalling a recent visit to a friend who is serving a prison term over his political activism, she said she realised the importance of staying in Hong Kong to support her friends in difficult circumstances.
“Even though we cannot touch each other [when I visited], we could only see each other and talk to each other, we were connecting. I can see him smile,” she said. “I can hear his voice, and that’s really important. That’s one of the reasons why I am still staying in Hong Kong.”