A demonstration of students' commitment to our society

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2011, 12:00am


Recent events at the University of Hong Kong have generated much soul-searching about the values of Hong Kong's youth. Given the debates on national and moral education, this couldn't be more timely.

National and moral values are crucial for the maintenance of stability and harmony, and we can all benefit greatly from this type of education. The fact that our cultural hub will cost over HK$21billion, while some families struggle to feed their children two meals a day, indicates that while we have an expansive appreciation of culture, there is room for improvement in our awareness of social justice.

Yet it is encouraging that the treatment of HKU protesters continues to be an issue, indicating that moral learning and engagement with national and social issues abound in Hong Kong.

Special mention must be made of Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, whose rubbishing of the issue helped secure headlines and sustain this issue for at least an additional week. The irony, of course, is that the students received far more attention than they would have done had less stringent measures been used. This has undoubtedly taught politicians and the police an important moral lesson.

But let us examine the moral lessons for HKU students. This affair has demonstrated: that respect and human dignity are trumped by a concern for a loss of face; that might is right; that although you may be a student at one of the most prestigious universities in Asia, your opinion doesn't really matter; and that, as a HKU student, you are not an asset, but a potential threat. Important lessons indeed.

The picture that has subsequently been painted of the HKU protesters is symptomatic of a perception of students and Hong Kong citizens as irrational, immature and incapable of grasping the greater good. This is hardly a novel interpretation of our community.

However, as much of the analysis has likened the students to dangerous hooligans, it is worth comparing the protest at HKU with recent riots in England to gain some perspective. The two could not be more different. The HKU students protested because they clearly feel a commitment to the political life of Hong Kong. By contrast, the recent abhorrent acts of rioting in England are the consequence of a disaffected youth without aspirations or a stake in the community - the very antithesis of the HKU protesters.

University is often the first time that young people engage with complex social issues and take an active role in them. Student protest has a long and established past. The year 1968 stands out - tens of thousands of students in the West took to the streets to uphold values that most of the world now largely takes for granted.

Many academics from that era look at students today and accuse them of not being revolutionary enough.

Though overshadowed by the events of 1989, China, too, has an important tradition of student protest. Historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom writes of how it was vital in every phase of China's revolutionary process. When we chastise student protesters as disloyal and immature, it is important to remember just how much we owe them.

Obviously, sometimes, protests become violent and a proportional response is justified. But disproportional responses only imply fear.

The police response at HKU can be seen as proportional, but only on the basis that the students posed an active physical threat to the vice-premier. Evidence to suggest this, however, has yet to surface. The fact that the police response took the form that it did, therefore, is deeply insulting and reveals a lack of faith, not only in the students of Hong Kong's oldest tertiary institution, but in the university itself. Perhaps someday we will come to realise that loyalty and respect for laws have to be cultivated, and cannot be instilled through coercion and fear - yet another invaluable moral lesson for Hong Kong.

Rachel Tsang is a PhD candidate and has taught political theory at the London School of Economics