HKU council meeting chaos reflects a worrying mob mentality among Hong Kong youth

Lawrence Lau says the youths who disrupted the University of Hong Kong council meeting need to respect the rule of law

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 August, 2015, 7:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 5:21pm

I am writing this article not because Ayesha, my wife, who is a member of the council of the University of Hong Kong, was pushed around, confined, taunted and sworn at by a mob at a meeting of the council on Tuesday night. (I hope these were not students from one of our best institutions of higher learning. They certainly fall short of the expected standard of an educated person.)

I am also not writing to comment on the appropriateness of the decision to delay the appointment of a pro-vice-chancellor at the university. That is something that should be left to the university to decide in accordance with its established process and procedures. As a society that prides itself on its commitment to the rule of law, Hong Kong can and should do no less. However, I am profoundly disappointed by the behaviour of some of our young people on that night, and I despair over their future as well as the future of Hong Kong.

Incidents such as the one on Tuesday should never occur in any civilised society, let alone at an institution for higher education. A university is a place of research, teaching and learning, and a platform for the open exchange of ideas and rational discourse. Young people can and should be idealistic, and free to embrace their beliefs strongly and enthusiastically, but they should always maintain open minds to different ideas. Otherwise, why attend a university?

One of the important things that young people should learn is to be tolerant of ideas that may be different from theirs and to be humble enough to try to learn from them. Just because the ideas are different does not necessarily mean they are wrong.

The mob behaviour exhibited on Tuesday night raised the question of whether these young people are ready to assume the responsibilities of adulthood. It raised doubts about whether they had been raised and educated properly. It also raised doubts about the motives of "adults" who used them and egged them on. Ultimately, it would raise doubts about whether Hong Kong taxpayers' money should continue to be used to coddle these self-centred "spoiled brats" who have no respect and consideration for other people's freedom and rights.

Those who participated in Tuesday night's mob should be taught that there are costs to such unacceptable and unlawful behaviour. Some penalty, such as one day in jail or 100 hours of supervised community service, would do these young people a great deal of good. If these people really and truly believe in their own righteousness, they should be willing to go to jail for their beliefs, as Kim Dae-jung, Nelson Mandela and our own Tsang Tak-sing did at one time. Moreover, if this mob is once again allowed to go scot-free, it will encourage similar mobs elsewhere, demanding different things, and then Hong Kong will become truly ungovernable.

I am also very sorry to have to conclude that the incident of Tuesday night indicates to me that not all the people of Hong Kong are ready for true democracy. Democracy is not about who can shout the loudest or who can cause the most disruption to other people's lives. One prerequisite for the success of a democratic system of government is the full acceptance, and not the selective acceptance, of the rule of law. Selective acceptance of the rule of law can degenerate quickly into rule by mob.

Uniform enforcement of the law, against everyone who breaks the law, is essential to maintaining the public respect for and compliance with the law. An unenforced law, or selectively enforced law, is a farce and encourages contempt and sophistic evasion.

The other important prerequisite for the success of a democratic system of government is the willingness of the losers to admit defeat graciously and accept the result. It is fine and honourable to accept the loss of an election or the loss of a vote as long as the fundamental system remains intact. Then there is always a chance to win the next time around. That is why preserving and protecting the integrity of the institution and system is so much more important than winning.

If the losers are unwilling to accept defeat graciously and continue to contest the result in unlawful ways, then the democratic system cannot function and will not be able to survive (look at Thailand, for example). It is instructive to consider the example of former US vice-president Al Gore, who graciously accepted the Supreme Court's decision that president George W. Bush had won Florida, even though he could have challenged the decision, which would have created chaos and instability. Many people still believe Gore had actually won Florida. But he put the best interests of the nation and the integrity of the US system above his own personal interests.

Our young people need to be taught that coercion and force are not the appropriate instruments to win over other people's hearts and minds. For example, if a gentleman wishes to ask for a lady's hand, threatening to harm her family members or commit suicide will not help to convince her to say yes.

In fact, it never pays to give in to blackmail. That is why the US government has a standing policy of never paying ransom for hostages. If the hostage-takers and potential hostage-takers realise and expect that ransom payments will be forthcoming, there will only be more incidents of hostage-taking, not fewer.

Giving in to mob rule is the same thing. If the university agrees to the demands of the mob this time, it creates a moral hazard, and more demands will come. Free tuition may be the next non-negotiable demand, followed by the firing of tough-grading professors. Where will it stop? Coercion, force and blackmail should have no place in Hong Kong and, in particular, not in an institution of higher learning.

I hope that Tuesday night's incident can encourage all of us, of whatever political persuasion, to reflect on how we can and should teach and save our next generation. Hong Kong cannot make progress if our next generation is without any sense of propriety and of shame.

Lawrence J. Lau is the Ralph and Claire Landau professor of economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. All opinions expressed herein are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organisations with which the author is affiliated