A year is a really, really long time in politics

Events in Scotland and in Hong Kong have seen the emergence of a newly politicised youth, writes Alistair Fraser

People holding umbrellas took to the streets of Hong Kong in September, a year on from the Occupy Central series of protests  also known as the Umbrella Movement  against Beijing's decision on reforms to the electoral system. Picture: Getty

They say a week is a long time in politics. What about a year? This time a year ago I was in Hong Kong, witnessing the unfolding of a remarkable social movement. The Umbrella Movement, as it became known, was largely led by young people, and involved the occupation of three major intersections in the city. It lasted three months, and at its height it brought an estimated 100,000 to the streets. In the process the humble umbrella – used to protect protesters from tear gas, water cannons, intense sunlight and fierce rain – became a symbol for a unique brand of Hong Kong-style street politics. The movement also catapulted its young leader, Joshua Wong, who turned 18 during the occupation, to global attention. His bespectacled eyes looked out from the cover of TIME magazine, under the words ‘The Face of Protest’.

These events emerged with strange synergy alongside the clamour and excitement of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. As students in Hong Kong were camping out to block roads, in Scotland young people were staying up all night glued to social media. The extension of the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds sparked a political consciousness in young people; debate was energised by a new generation who voted largely in favour of independence. In the post-referendum elections at Westminster, a figurehead for this youthful politics emerged. Mhairi Black, aged 20, unseated Douglas Alexander for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, and attracted ten million online views of her maiden speech.

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In both Hong Kong and Scotland, for many years, there was a received wisdom that young people were politically disengaged and disaffected. So the argument went, the political class were so far removed from their everyday lives that young people were turned off from politics. Going to the protest sites in Hong Kong and following social media on the referendum demonstrated unequivocally that this is not the case now; if indeed it ever was. Here were thousands of young people actively creating a social space and political community that demanded change. These new youthful politics stand in stark contrast to the predominant narratives of youth in the 21st century, which revolve around crime, disorder and precariousness. What is going on here?

Along with colleagues, I’ve been carrying out a study of youth leisure in Scotland and Hong Kong for the past few years. Though the project wasn’t designed to capture young people’s views on politics, we have been trying to think about how our research can inform debate in this area. While it is easy to jump to conclusions about a new, global form of youth politics – with links to transnational Occupy movements – the truth probably lies closer to home. In Hong Kong, we found generational change and political consciousness went hand in hand. In Scotland, young people felt turned off from traditional political parties, but all of a sudden saw that their opinions mattered.

The research has also seen us delve into history, and we were fortunate to find that we were following in the footsteps of an unsung hero of social research, Pearl Jephcott. In 1971, after publishing a groundbreaking study of youth leisure in Scotland, Jephcott travelled to Hong Kong on behalf of Unicef. She documented clear differences in the meanings of work and leisure between these two contexts, some of which remain today. While Glasgow’s youngsters were mooning around in the latest fashions, listening to pop music, growing their hair long and getting into fights, Hong Kong teenagers were working.

Since this time, much has changed. Hong Kong has matured into a developed global economy with a strong education system, while Scotland has established a devolved parliament that has retained free university education, though significant social and economic inequalities remain. In both sites we found young people living simultaneously between online and offline worlds. They were in constant contact through their smartphones – using WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook – whilst also often being in conversation in the “real world”. Social media has clearly become a critical rallying point and instigator of real-world engagement in new and interesting ways.

In Hong Kong, however, young people have taken their politics to the streets in a way that is much less common in Scotland. In a recent interview, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pointed to the referendum as a potential lesson in “political engagement” for Hong Kong’s young people. Perhaps, however, lessons can be drawn in both directions.

An exhibition of images from the ESRC-funded research project (Re)Imagining Youth: From Glasgow to Hong Kong will be on display from 7-14 November at The Bridge, Easterhouse. For further details see: https://reimaginingyouth.wordpress.com/exhibition/

• Alistair Fraser is a lecturer in criminology and sociology in the school of social and political sciences at the University of Glasgow, and honorary assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Hong Kong. His book, Urban Legends: Gang Identity in the Post-Industrial City, was published this year by the OU Press.