Today's students in Hong Kong haven't earned their political rights

Raymond Tang says if young people want to be treated as adults, they should act responsibly and be prepared to face the legal consequences when breaking the law, even for a social cause

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 August, 2015, 11:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 August, 2015, 11:30am

Following the deferment, again, of the appointment of the University of Hong Kong's pro-vice-chancellor, and the storming of the HKU council's meeting by dissatisfied members of the student union, creating chaos, the city is abuzz with divided opinions.

It has become fairly obvious that the students don't just want a new pro-vice-chancellor to be appointed as soon as possible - they want their favoured candidate, Johannes Chan Man-mun, to get the job without further ado. Leaving aside the question of whether Professor Chan is best suited for the job (and here, too, it seems that opinions are very much divided), what is of interest is the level of political rights demanded by students in this time and age.

Back when I was young - and speaking as someone whose school days were in the 1950s - 18 was more than a coming of age. Most people had to start working at an early age to help sustain their family's finances, and tertiary education was an exclusive privilege for a fortunate few.

Political rights are what you earn by fulfilling your political responsibilities; they are not given for free, as with pretty much everything else in life

So, by the age of 18 - or even earlier - most of us were already making a fair contribution to society, and helping to shape it. Through toil and labour, young adults earned the right to political participation. There was a socio-political case for granting political rights to people as young as 18 back then, so to speak.

Fast forward to today. The palpable increase in equality and affluence means more young adults get the opportunity to pursue tertiary education in Hong Kong at one of the city's eight universities, and many young people remain financially dependent on their parents longer into adulthood.

For those who do not find a place at one of the universities, there are other educational opportunities available, funded by the public purse.

In other words, 18 years of age no longer represents the threshold for the transformation of a young adult from being looked after to looking after himself or herself (and the family, too), as most young adults don't start working before the age of 22 or 23 these days. My humble question, therefore, is: What is the basis to justify the vesting of political rights in today's young adults?

It seems these political rights manifest themselves in many ways. Students at some universities even get to evaluate or rate their professors, and, presumably, these ratings could directly affect the professors' own performance review. Rhetorically, if a "student" is able or good enough to decide who his teacher should be and how he should be taught, is he really a "student"? Who is teaching whom anyway?

It is worth noting society's confusion with students' political rights today. Some believe these people, as adults, deserve political rights. Yet, we also seek to spare them the legal consequences when they breach the law while taking part in a social movement, for instance, because in the eyes of the public, these students aren't considered to be adults yet; their working life has yet to begin. That stance defies logic, at least to my mind.

Political rights are what you earn by fulfilling your political responsibilities; they are not given for free, as with pretty much everything else in life. If you claim to be an adult who deserves your share of political rights, then your scope of political responsibility should be the same as everyone else's.

Age or youthful exuberance, even for a social cause, does not justify a claim to rights without corresponding responsibilities.

Whether our university students wish to be treated as legal adults with political rights, or as non-legal adults whose breach of the law can be condoned, one thing we must never forget is that, with rights come responsibilities.

Raymond Tang Yee-bong is a former chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission