Taipei, Taiwan – “Should I stay or go?” That’s a question many young people in Hong Kong are asking themselves, 25 years after the city returned to Chinese rule.
At the handover in 1997, Beijing promised the former British colony 50 years of self-government and civil and political rights not found on the Communist Party-ruled mainland. But Beijing’s tougher crackdown on the city’s freedoms — including a national security law passed in 2020 that has virtually eradicated all dissent — has irrevocably changed the lives of Hong Kong people.
“The things that we thought would always be there gradually faded away, like the system itself, like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, all that, and we lost faith in our government,” said Iris, a 25-year-old Hong Kong native , who was born in the year of surrender.
“Overall, our generation is pretty hopeless about the future,” she said, requesting that only her first name be used. The office worker said many people in Hong Kong see their generation as “cursed”.
Hong Kongers born around the time of the handover grew up in an atmosphere of resistance to Beijing’s encroachments on their way of life. They were children at mass demonstrations against a proposed national security law in 2003 and teenagers during the 2014 Occupy Central protests sparked by Beijing’s refusal to allow direct elections for the city’s leader.
These demonstrations were followed by mass protests in 2019 against plans to allow extraditions to the mainland. The protests, which began peacefully before turning violent, escalated to calls for greater autonomy and even independence from Beijing.
Beijing responded the following year by enacting draconian national security laws outlawing vaguely defined acts of subversion, secession, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces. Since then, most of the city’s political opposition have been imprisoned or forced into exile, dozens of civil society organizations have disbanded, and critical and independent media outlets have had to close. As part of a major overhaul of the electoral system, only candidates deemed “patriots” can contest seats in the city’s legislature.
Against the background of dwindling freedoms, almost 60 percent of young people expressed the 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. Polls from 2019 show that about 87 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds supported the pro-democracy protests and 63 percent said they personally attended.
Hong Kongers under the age of 25 have fewer opportunities to escape the city’s new political reality than older residents. While those born before the July 1, 1997 handover are eligible for a British National Overseas Pass, which since last year has offered a pathway to residency in the UK, younger residents will need to look for employment, study or family channels in order to to emigrate
“As someone born in 1997, sometimes you feel like your future has already been decided by people born before 1997 and you’re not part of the conversation about what your future is 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 becoming involved in running Telegram channels used in organizing the 2019 protests. Such activities have earned other protesters lengthy prison terms.
Anna said the decision has been difficult for her and her family – a decision not all young Hong Kongers are able or willing to make.
Gary Pui-fung Wong, a Leeds University lecturer whose research includes Hong Kong’s cultural history, said the combined pressure of being a Hong Kong native and a young person is a powerful mix.
Many people in their 20s are going through a transition period where they begin to think more seriously about their future careers and family prospects, Wong said. Even before 2019, this was difficult in Hong Kong, where renting — let alone buying — is unaffordable for most young people.
“Right now, they have to incorporate the city’s future into their own personal plan,” Wong told Al Jazeera.
“If Hong Kong’s integration into mainland China continues, this city may face fundamental changes, so they have to think about migration, especially with Britain and Canada opening up some options [university] Graduates move.”
For young Hong Kongers who have chosen to stay in the city, some have found purpose through the city’s local movement. The movement that has emerged over the past 15 years has sought to preserve the difference between Hong Kong and mainland China, whether it’s the Cantonese language, colonial-era architecture, or Cha Chaan Teng cafes serving hybrid western Cantonese cuisine serve.
Jen, a 25-year-old Hong Kong resident who runs a culture space and conducts research on Hong Kong culture, said exploring the city’s culture can allow for a degree of free speech, even when overt political activism is restricted.
“I think a lot of people are talking about moving somewhere else, but I feel like after 2019 a lot of people are also interested in exploring and understanding Hong Kong culture — or feeling the importance of it,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I have a feeling that something can be done [here], which offers space for various cultural events. We can’t have big protests or celebrate June 4th [the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square killings in Beijing], but that does not mean that everything has stopped. I want to continue with small things.”
Olivia, a media worker who was born around the time of the handover, said that as she mentally prepares for more draconian changes like the closure of her media outlet, she has found solace in her community.
“Even if we can’t make our voice [heard]we can still connect with people around us,” Olivia told Al Jazeera, asking to be addressed by her first name only.
Recalling a recent visit to a friend who is serving a sentence for his political involvement, she said she understood the importance of staying in Hong Kong to support her friends in difficult circumstances.
“Even if we can’t touch [when I visited], we could only see each other and talk to each other, we were connected. I can see him smiling,” she said. “I can hear his voice and that’s really important. It’s one of the reasons I’m still staying in Hong Kong.”