Occupy Central

Who can build a bridge to Hong Kong's discontented youth?

Mike Rowse says officials must find a way to reconnect with young people

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 11:10pm

The gulf between our young people and the administration now yawns like a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon.

Almost 800,000 people voting in the referendum, perhaps half a million marching in blazing heat and pouring rain. It's probably the single most important issue facing our community - of greater urgency even than political reform or any of the other individual issues that arise from time to time.

The question is not whether a largely student-fuelled movement can occupy Central and cause chaos for a time - anyone who didn't know it has just seen convincing proof that they can. Nor is it a question of whether the police can carry them all away - given enough time, they will surely manage it without the need for assistance from the PLA garrison.

But, at the end of the day, what do these actions and reactions achieve? The real questions are what has caused this extreme disaffection and how can the government coax the young people back into the mainstream political process.

As a first step, a way needs to be found of starting a dialogue. That means talking and, even more important, listening. It won't be easy. The two sides are not communicating with each other at all at the moment, just shouting slogans. Every cry of "civil nomination" is met with a chorus of "Basic Law" and this is not very productive.

Moreover, bad manners have become the order of the day. There is no excuse for the discourtesy shown to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor by students at the Academy for Performing Arts when she presided over a graduation ceremony recently. Apparently because she was acting chief executive on the day, this merited a series of insulting gestures and actions.

Apart from the personal injustice of this behaviour, the event was ruined for many parents and students for whom this was one of the most important days of their lives.

Who should be responsible for communicating with our young people? In an ideal world, it ought to be Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying himself. However, he is politically toxic at the moment. Given the APA saga, it probably should not be Lam who takes the lead either, at least in the opening rounds.

It can't be the hapless education minster, Eddie Ng Hak-kim, he of the ill-advised and counterproductive "Don't take part in Occupy Central, it will adversely affect your future" warning. On another day, Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung might have been an option. He is earnest, professionally respected and mild-mannered. But since he is the person who has publicly advised - quite correctly in my view - that civic nomination is contrary to the Basic Law, he gets a pass.

Which leaves us with Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, who has been almost invisible in the whole political reform exercise. One glorious opportunity has already been missed. What change in atmosphere might have been achieved if Tam had sat down in Chater Road with the students and invited their views directly? After an hour or so in their chosen meeting place, he could have invited them to meet in his conference room next time.

Some might argue that such a step would give too much face to a bunch of rowdies and would only encourage more bad behaviour on their part. That is as may be, but a society that abandons trying to connect with its young people has no future.

When it comes to dealing with protesting students in prominent public places, give me Zhao Ziyang over Li Peng every time.

Many marchers adopted Do you hear the people sing?, from Les Misérables, as their unofficial theme song. It only works if you go to the concert.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.