Young, idealistic and increasingly intolerant in Hong Kong

Bernard Chan says radical student activists are harming their own cause

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 May, 2014, 6:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

I recently read about an incident at Dartmouth College in the US. Student activists occupied administrative offices overnight and presented the president with a long list of demands. They were about inclusion, and may be quite radical (like "gender-neutral bathrooms"). The article underlined how intolerant the protesters were - insisting they were right and refusing to debate or listen to alternative views.

Things are a bit like this at universities in Hong Kong. We hear plenty of reports of activist students making unrealistic or quite extreme demands. One example is the claim that all students have the right to vote on senior university appointments.

Students have a right to make constructive suggestions but, in this case, they misunderstood how recruitment works in universities or other organisations, where applicants do not expect an open election to posts.

I realise that in Hong Kong generally, the establishment lacks a popular mandate and therefore trust. But what surprises me is some students' attitudes. They do not seem interested in discussion or in listening in an atmosphere of mutual respect. They insist they are right, and that is the end of it.

A businessman - or a parent - knows this is not an effective way to negotiate or persuade. You have to listen and try to understand others' positions and produce constructive arguments to make progress towards agreement.

Of course, these students are probably not typical of most young people on Hong Kong campuses. Universities are places of learning and research, where most of us would expect openness, tolerance and respect for new or different ideas. Naturally, that can lead to disagreements. But it seems there are a few who are so eager to rebel and argue against authority that they become intolerant.

Where else have we recently seen this pattern of young people who go beyond idealism, towards fanaticism? There is the so-called Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, which saw students occupy the legislative chambers in Taipei. Most of its members appear fairly reasonable. But later it splintered, and a more radical faction emerged and went on to become extremely critical of the more moderate mainstream movement.

Then we have our own Occupy Central movement. Different people may see this broad group of pro-democrats as idealistic, unrealistic or naive. Some see it as a threat. Its leading members, including academics, religious figures and former senior officials, seem aware of the need to appear moderate. But the organisation has recently suffered from radical - and largely youthful - intolerance.

Occupy Central was finalising a shortlist of proposals concerning political reform. The process was essentially hijacked by the most radical, largely younger, groups, who were able to exclude all but their favoured options, which were of course the most extreme.

The ironic part is that the proposals focus on the nomination system for the 2017 chief executive election. The radicals say they oppose any sort of "screening" of candidates, but that is pretty much what they have done. They might argue that their three extreme options won in a fair contest, but it is clear from their comments and actions - like burning pictures of more moderate pro-democrats - that they are driven by pure intolerance. If anything, they have harmed the pro-democrats' cause.

I was a teenager, and I was a college student on a politically liberal campus. The world would be a far worse place if young people were not idealistic. But it would also suffer if we lost the ability to respect each other's differences, because then we get intolerance and even hatred. And then debate becomes impossible, maybe dangerous and certainly pointless.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council