Hong Kong’s angry youth: since you can’t shoot them, you might as well listen to their grievances

Yonden Lhatoo argues that as belligerent and entitled as it may seem, the new generation has a voice that matters and it’s in our best interests to at least listen

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

The Who, one of the greatest rock bands ever, summed up teenage angst with its 1965 anthem, My Generation.

People try to put us d-down/ Just because we get around/ Things they do look awful c-c-cold/ I hope I die before I get old,” sang lead vocalist Roger Daltrey, embellishing the lyrics with an angry, faux stutter. It resonated with millions of disaffected youth around the world.

Legend has it that the song was written by guitarist Pete Townshend as a one-finger salute to Britain’s queen mother who apparently had his car, an ancient Packard hearse, towed off the street because it offended her delicate sensibilities.

Times have changed and young people don’t listen to music like that any more, having been brought up on a steady diet of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. But for many, that old sense of feeling alienated and disrespected is more acute than ever.

Their growing rebelliousness here in Hong Kong is on full display, and the authorities are at a loss as to how they should be pacified or punished.

Tuesday night’s chaos at the University of Hong Kong was a prime example. Around 200 angry students demanding administrative reform and a greater say in the running of the city’s oldest university besieged its governing council meeting for hours, trapping newly appointed chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung inside late into the night.

Vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson, who was with Li, complained that he feared for his life because the mob outside was so belligerent.

READ MORE: Surrounded – University of Hong Kong students besiege governing council meeting, demand talks with Arthur Li

The students have been dutifully condemned by everyone. The first thing I heard from the “oldies” the next day was the usual: “What’s wrong with young people these days? All they should be doing is studying. When we were students, we got on with it instead of worrying about who is in charge. They’re so spoiled and entitled.”

That may be true. But it’s also true that, like it or not, this is the new generation and they’re here to stay. They’re politically much more aware and empowered, as we saw in 2014 when they practically led the civil disobedience campaign under the Occupy Central banner to demand greater democracy.

Yes, they may be naive, easily influenced or misguided sometimes. I was told by more than one reporter on the scene at HKU on Tuesday that there were “dodgy characters” in the crowd who could not have been students but were doing plenty of instigating.

Young people can be impressionable and emotional. Surely all us grown-ups remember our own rebellious days?

Adopting a dismissive or condescending attitude will only provoke them to strike out

But the new generation is also well informed and idealistic. These youngsters want a better life in a city like Hong Kong, where social injustices ranging from the lack of upward mobility to the acute shortage of housing and the shamefully unequal distribution of wealth can leave you feeling frustrated and hopeless.

Adopting a dismissive or condescending attitude towards them – like some of our officials, politicians and community leaders tend to – will only provoke them to strike out. It’s happening right now.

Saying “grow up” to this new generation is not going to solve the problem. You can’t shoot them. And they’re not afraid of police batons, pepper spray or tear gas, as we saw during the Occupy protests.

Engaging them and addressing their grievances may feel like giving in to “blackmail” but it could be the only workable solution.

Let’s also not forget that the silent majority of young people in this city are getting on with studies and business as usual, and many of them don’t agree with the radical behaviour of their peers.

They all deserve a voice.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post