On Second Thought: Government ignores protest movement at its peril

A generation of protesters has grown up. The government disregards them at its peril

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2012, 4:06am

In his election campaign, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying bandied about his election motto of "change in stability".

At the time, he could hardly have imagined this proposition would be severely tested in a crisis so soon.

That crisis is the prolonged protest against the national education scheme, fuelled by anger over a perceived attempt to brainwash school pupils.

Throughout a long hot August, while officials were mulling over the issue, confrontation festered.

The ghost of June 4, 1989, loomed before us. From a massive protest march in July to the September siege of Tamar - now dubbed People's Plaza - protesters demanded national education be scrapped. They made thunderous speeches, played loud music and shouted slogans in unison.

Senior officials held press conferences to explain their position, blinking away tears. They had just appointed a committee to gather views on all aspects of the scheme. The chief executive visited the hunger strikers. He extended his hand and an olive branch, calling the protesters "friends".

On the eve of the Legislative Council election, he announced major concessions. Short of total withdrawal, he allowed schools to decide for themselves how and when to introduce the subject, if at all. He could not have been more conciliatory.

Yet, the protesters were untouched. As they left Tamar, other protesters, mainly students in tertiary institutions, picked up the fight, relay style.

For those of us watching the debacle from the sidelines, there was a feeling the government might be imploding before our eyes. Officials appeared to have been wrongly advised and missed the point.

They don't seem to understand that these protesters will not be pacified by any nip-and-tuck minor changes, made by officials they do not trust, to a policy they do not like. Their protests are outward signs of an inner rage. These protesters are young, smart and internet-savvy. They are irreverent, passionate, bold and free-spirited, defying the authorities.

Ironically, they are the product of Hong Kong's own education system, home grown in post-colonial Hong Kong.

China is their country. Hong Kong is their home. They want to have a good future. They want to shape their own future.

In this internet age, the vital imperatives facing the government are: how to involve these young people in the policy-making process; how to unify Hong Kong into a harmonious whole; and, above all, how to win the trust of the people whom it seeks to govern.

For a start, and thinking outside the gubernatorial box, the government could seize the opportunity to appoint a couple of protest leaders to the Executive Council or create a new high-powered Youth Ministry with its dedicated youth council, not just to express or gather views but to evolve and implement new policies for the young. There are any number of ways to seize the opportunity to evolve an ethos of trust, but it takes time to build this trust and verify it.

Elizabeth Wong was secretary for health and welfare from 1990 to 1994 and a legislative councillor from 1995 to 1997