Hong Kong students vote with their feet as unions hurt

Undergraduates may sympathise with activism, especially when it’s in the cause of democracy, but example set by representatives has turned them away 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2018, 5:34am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2018, 5:53am

If news headlines are anything to go by, our university undergraduates don’t want to join, or vote for, their highly politicised student unions. 

Few vote in union elections, which in any case, often have no candidates running at all. 

Various theories have been proposed, but I prefer the most obvious: Most of our students are far more sensible and mature than we give them credit for. Many of them may sympathise with student activism, especially when it’s in the cause of democracy. 

Why Hong Kong’s young people are abandoning student unions 

But they see their representatives having gone off the rails in recent years, espousing not just radicalism, but frequently committing to absurd, outlandish and indefensible positions.

At the moment, four of our eight public universities – Baptist University, Education University, Lingnan University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – have no elected student union leaders.

The University of Hong Kong may follow. 

Sociologist and former head of the government’s Central Policy Unit Lau Siu-kai said students may worry that political participation might jeopardise their future employability. Mak Tung-wing, a HKU student union president back in 1987, said students today were demoralised by the failure of the 2014 Occupy movement to effect democratic changes.

These explanations are valid, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that many radicalised student leaders have ended in ignominy in recent years.

When the eldest son of Undersecretary for Education Christine Choi Yuk-lin committed suicide last year, a poster was put up at the Education University congratulating her.

When school management criticised and took down the poster, the student union defended the posting of the message as an act of free speech. Afterwards, other university student unions joined in to show support.

Last September, a former Chinese University student union president acquired citywide infamy when he went on a deranged and obscenity-filled tirade against fellow mainland students while the union subsequently defended him. 

If ignorance is not the reason, why do young Hongkongers dislike mainland China?

In January, another student union leader, this time from Baptist University, led a group of 30 students to take over the school’s language centre for several hours and aggressively confronted staff. 

They were angry about a mandatory Mandarin exam and demanded that it be scrapped.

I leave aside the countless rowdy protests over democracy, Hong Kong independence and university autonomy, which reasonable people may disagree as to their legitimacy.

Student unions in recent years tended to attract the most extreme and unrestrained characters. Most students may finally realise they don’t represent them.