Hong Kong should stop denigrating the young people who are its future, or risk driving them away

Peter Kammerer says while we should speak out against anti-social behaviour, name-calling is unhelpful, as fast-ageing Hong Kong needs its young

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 October, 2015, 12:54pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 October, 2015, 1:58pm

Some Hong Kong Cantonese speakers refer to them as fai tsing - rubbish youth. It's a term modified from the ages-old fai chai, or rubbish wood, and came into popular use during the Occupy protests. Since then, it has been broadened to include anyone aged from their late teens to thirties who frets about the availability of good jobs, cost of housing, Beijing's perceived erosion of the "one country, two systems" model and, yes, the right to choose their own chief executive. It's an odd way to think of the people who are our most valuable asset.

READ MORE: Full coverage of the Occupy Central protests

People in that age group have always had the same concerns, no matter where in the world they live. When the economic climate is tight, it's natural that their worries and fears for the future increase. Hong Kong's highly competitive education system raises the stakes, with parents making big investments in their children and expecting commensurate returns. When the best job available after a master's degree is an internship with uncertain full-time prospects or working behind a checkout counter, the frustrations can reach a boiling point and spill over.

Call our youth rubbish and treat them as if they are worthless to society and they will not want to be part of it

Protests are one way of letting a government know about frustrations - that's what Occupy was about. But there are obviously ways and means of protest and rules and laws have to be followed. Those requirements are simple enough: protests have to be peaceful and orderly. Hongkongers have a right to freedom of speech and expression, but that does not also mean the right to engage in conduct that disrupts others.

University of Hong Kong student union president Billy Fung Jing-en was dubbed fai tsing when he broke the university governing council's confidentiality rules by divulging how law professor Johannes Chan Man-mun's nomination to be a pro-vice-chancellor came to be rejected. A dozen students who in July stormed a meeting of the council to protest against its decision to delay making the appointment were branded with the same tag. Any time younger people complain, raise an argument or simply point out what they believe is wrong, they receive the same treatment by a particular demographic. Those who break the rules deserve to be reprimanded, but it's also wrong to denigrate them by using disparaging language.

READ MORE: University of Hong Kong whistle-blower Billy Fung tries to ride out storm over council revelations

Younger generations in general, and the students of our most prestigious university in particular, are, after all, Hong Kong's future. That seems an unremarkable observation, but consider how fast our population is ageing and how low the birth rate is - both are at the top end of the global scale. The latest population projections show that the proportion of citizens over the age of 65 will increase from the present 15 per cent to more than 30 per cent in 2043. Come 2018 - a mere three years away - the number of people in full-time employment will begin to shrink. These figures factor in migration from the mainland, the fertility rate and present trends for attracting overseas labour.

Who is going to provide the health-care costs of the rising numbers of elderly? Where will the funding for the city's services come from? "Taxpayers" is the answer and with fewer people working, the strain will be on those who are now worrying about being able to get a well-paying job and afford a flat of their own - younger generations.

Call them rubbish and treat them as if they are worthless to society and they will not want to be part of it. Fail to provide those who are well educated with a healthy living and working environment and they will go to a place where those most basic of expectations are met. If some of us don't tone down our language towards Hong Kong's youth, our future is likely to be driven away.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post