Politics a tough sell on campus

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2011, 12:00am


Student apathy - lack of interest in community issues - seems to have reached new heights in Hong Kong. Student unions at three of the city's seven universities have been unable to elect executive councils.

At a time when the so-called post-1980s generation is said to be increasingly involved in social and political issues, few students seem interested in what happens at their own universities.

'Students are just not that interested in politics,' says Nicky Wong Chun-kin, a City University marketing student who served last year as external vice-president.

That became clear last autumn. Normally, students at CityU begin the term in August by putting together rival slates of candidates to run in the November student union elections. Last year, only one group of students stepped forward, but it was rejected at the polls.

'Students were upset because over the summer the university had raised prices in the canteen, and they thought we hadn't done enough to avoid that,' Wong says. 'So they voted against the cabinet, because some of the candidates were executives last year.'

The union had no choice but to appoint an acting executive committee, including several failed candidates.

'Our constitution only allows us to hold another election in special circumstances, such as when there is electoral fraud,' says Oliver Liu Yi-zhou, who was appointed acting president.

'Because we obtained our positions through nomination rather than through election, students are not very aware of who we are and what we are doing,' says Hazel Chan Nga-yan, the union's acting public relations secretary.

The story is similar at Lingnan University and the University of Science and Technology. They, too, failed to elect executive councils this year, Hong Kong Federation of Students secretary general Daisy Chan Sin-ying says.

Some students blame the lack of a mature political culture at Hong Kong's younger universities.

'We are only 20 years old, while Chinese University has had a student union for 45 years,' says Amy Kwok Wing-hung, a former public relations secretary of CityU's student union.

But even at Hong Kong's most established universities, turnout for student elections rarely exceeds 30 per cent.

Liu, originally from Sichuan, suggests the rising numbers of mainland students at Hong Kong's universities is contributing to the trend of political indifference.

'Many students from the mainland are more conservative, and they don't want to talk about democracy,' he says.

'When we put up posters about June 4 [the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown], we get comments written in simplified Chinese attacking us for putting them up.'

Chan Kai-yip served as president of the Hong Kong University Students' Union in 2006. She says most students feel disconnected from student politics because they don't think it reflects their interests.

'My own opinion is that the union works hard to represent their interests, but it doesn't know how to promote itself and let the students know what it is doing for them, so people feel there is no use in voting or getting involved,' she says.

Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, programme director of the University of Hong Kong's Department of Social Work and Social Administration, says young Hongkongers 'seem to be more active than before, but the way they participate is different'.

'These post-80s and post-90s people like to have more informal participation,' he says. 'They might not like to sit on committees. Instead, they like going on web platforms to exchange their views or try to mobilise the population.'

'It's a myth that most of the post-80s generation are very active in politics,' he says. The vast majority of young people are still mostly concerned with their personal lives, academic work and future careers.