When I left Germany – or to be more precise, when I left my German cultural bubble in Beijing for my life’s second journey to the Western world, I was idealistic, emotionally vulnerable, naïve and all of those things that one is at age 19. One thing, however, I was not: afraid of authority and superiors. In fact, my German education had instilled in me a natural suspicion of authority figures in any political and institutional setting and a subsequent duty to disobey them if necessary.
The final high school degree, the Abitur, is also referred to as the Reifeprüfung, which literally means a ‘test of maturity’ (I know – so serious, so German). The speeches given at the degree ceremonies – by both authority figures such as principals and teachers, as well as the students themselves – commonly center around the question whether the freshly conferred Abitur students have attained true maturity at the end of their educational journey: Are they critical members of society? Can they show civil courage when they see other people’s rights violated? And most important, can they respectfully stand up to authority and those in power? What is remarkable is that these questions are not just asked by students but by the authority figures themselves. My teachers and principal seemed to feel that they had done a good job if they had raised students that would be able to rebel against them.
I am thinking again about the question of authority and youth in the context of the recent Hong Kong democracy protests. The protests, which at their peak reached participation levels of 100,000 people, were marked by their peaceful, highly self-disciplined and ordered nature. Most of all, what surprised Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and outside observers alike was the overwhelming participation of young people, such as university and high school students. Without them, the protests would not have gained momentum and been sustained. The images of tear gas being sprayed into the eyes of Hong Kong’s students led to a huge outcry within the general population and drove more people into the streets. One of the main protest ‘leaders’, Joshua Wong, only just turned 18 this week and was a high school student until the summer.
Journalists such as Martin Jacques tried to dismiss the genuineness of the protesters’ demands for democratic elections and for freedom from Mainland Chinese control by suggesting that the underlying reason of the protests were not so much political, but stemming from an internal identity crisis, which in turn were fueled by arrogance and hubris towards China. Jacques is certainly not entirely wrong in observing that that a lot of Hongkongers perceive Mainland Chinese as poor and inferior, and that they identify more with a Western identity, even though many cultural aspects of life remain permeated by East Asian norms and aesthetics.
A study on global stereotyping shows that Hongkongers view Filipino maids and Mainland Chinese in terms of disgust (Cuddy, Fiske et al. 2009), the lowest possible category when it comes to stereotyping. We perceive people towards whom we feel disgust as possessing minimum human warmth and intellectual competence (Fiske et al. 2002, in a groundbreaking study on the mixed nature of stereotypes). Research in social neuroscience went further and showed that feeling disgust towards someone can disable core social brain functions such as being able to ‘mentalize’ how someone else feels – in the worst possible scenario, this can lead to dehumanization and treating this person as less-than-human (Harris and Fiske 2006). (Incidentally, in the US, people who fall into the disgust group are welfare recipients and the homeless. Hispanics, Muslims and Blacks are at the threshold.)
And yet, I don’t agree with Jacques on what fuelled the protests. When I was in Hong Kong last year to give a talk at Hong Kong’s City University, I asked the audience about their Hong Kong identity. I had discussed this question with some of the people in the audience already back in New York, when they had visited the States to witness the US presidential elections in 2012 with the New Youth Forum group, a civil society group organized by young Hong Kong citizens. The young Hongkongers in the audience said they felt distinctively ‘Hongkongnese’, but an unsure and awkward silence followed my question of what exactly this meant to them. I believe that the insecurity behind the silence was genuine and not primarily driven by disgust towards Mainland China. Similarly, during the protests this year, slogans and demands were not dominated by stereotypical disgust towards a backward China, but a sincere political voice trying to find its democratic identity.
Journalists like Jacques who try to portray the protests as an unpolitical identity crisis hidden under the disguise of democratic demands not only miss the birth of a new democratic identity that the young people of Hong Kong try to carve out of the hitherto confused silence that I met last year, but most important, he misses the emergence of a crucial dynamic that is the pillar of any well-functioning democracy: the relationship between a country’s youth with authority.
Germany arrived at its commendable cultivation of a critical relationship between youth and authority via a painful path (alas, as with pretty much anything else in Germany history and culture – maybe with the exception of music). The unconditional worship of Hitler and the Nazi regime by a vast majority of Germans, as well as the fanatic reverence of political and militaristic hierarchies by masses of young people during those dark years left a deep mark on Germany’s educational conscience. However, it was not until the 68’ student revolution (I accidentally stumbled across Rudi Dutschke’s grave in the St. Annen Kirchhof in Berlin Dahlem this year) and the efforts of that generation to confront the moral abyss that their parents and grandparents had left behind that teachers and authority figures adopted this new educational and political ideal, of which I am a product.
The Hong Kong protests are dwindling down and we are left to wonder what is left behind. If anything, for a young generation of Hongkongers, it’s walking out of the silence of a complex identity crisis into the hum of political contestation of their uncertain future.
Cuddy, A. et al. (2009). Stereotype content model across cultures: towards universal similarities and some differences. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 1-33.
Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 6, 878–902.
Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuro-imaging responses to extreme outgroups. Psychological Science, 17, 847-853.