Defining Politics in an ‘Apolitical City’: An Ethnographic study of Hong Kong


  • Sonia Yue Chuen Lam-Knott National University of Singapore; University of Oxford



youth activism, defining politics, Hong Kong politics, political apathy


Hong Kong has been described as a city that prioritises socio-economic stability at the expense of political engagement. Despite recent protests —such as the 2003 demonstration with half a million people taking to the streets—that seemingly dispel such statements, Hong Kong youth activists claim that the city remains apolitical. How can we make sense of this paradox of seeing the protests on the streets of the city, with what is being said by these youths? In attempting to unravel this puzzle, this paper highlights the importance for anthropologists of understanding how politics is conceptualised amongst their informants, which in turn determines the peculiar manifestations of political actions in that societal context. This paper argues that in Hong Kong, there are discrepancies between youth activists and the general population in how politics is framed and situated in relation to everyday life. It is then revealed that contemporary mainstream attitudes towards politics are actually a product of the city’s colonial history. Finally, this paper will explore the sentiments (of indifference, discomfort, or frustration) youth activists and non-political individuals respectively harbour towards politics and political actors, and the obstacles dominant attitudes towards politics pose for youth activists and for anthropologists alike. 

Author Biography

Sonia Yue Chuen Lam-Knott, National University of Singapore; University of Oxford

Postdoctoral Fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

Postdoctoral Associate, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford