Mong Kok riot

Discontent runs deep: Hong Kong faces a real risk of losing its alienated youth

Magdalena Mok and Kerry Kennedy say research on youth and radical protest behaviour indicates a worrying tendency among some to see civic participation in negative terms

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 1:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 2:58pm

The civil unrest in Mong Kok shocked Hong Kong society and attracted much foreign attention. Senior government officials and pro-government legislators denounced the incident. Indeed, the condemnation of violence has been almost unanimous.

Students who have a poor relationship with their teachers and see the classroom environment as less open are more prepared to join illegal protests

This is understandable. Yet, this hardly helps the community understand what happened. To do so, we could perhaps examine evidence about young people’s willingness to engage in illegal protests.

In 2009, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement conducted the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study. The 14-year-olds surveyed included 2,902 students from 76 secondary schools in Hong Kong. One set of questions related to their future civic engagement. In addition to questions on conventional engagement, such as voting and writing to a newspaper, students were also asked whether they thought they would engage in different forms of illegal protest in the future: spray-painting slogans on walls; blocking traffic; or, occupying public buildings.

Across the region, the levels of endorsement of such illegal protests vary from society to society. In Indonesia, for example, the proportions were the largest: 34.8 per cent thought they would paint graffiti on walls; 26.4 per cent would block roads; and 39 per cent would occupy public buildings. Taiwanese students were more moderate, with figures of 14.2 per cent, 8.4 per cent and 8.7 per cent respectively, while Hong Kong students were the most moderate at 10.4 per cent, 7.9 per cent and 8.2 per cent.

READ MORE: Hunt on for 100 Hong Kong rioters who took ‘active role’ in Mong Kok mayhem

These differences are likely to be related to social, economic, policial and cultural conditions. Notably, even in the moderate case of Hong Kong, the survey showed that between eight and 10 of every 100 14-year-old students revealed a tendency to exhibit radical forms of protest behaviour. This suggests between 6,000 and 7,900 14-year-old Hong Kong students have thought about participating in illegal protests against perceived injustice.

What does this tell us about our students? Our research shows that the more likely a student is to engage in illegal protest, the lower his or her level of civic knowledge. This tendency also relates to students’ relationship with teachers, and the openness of the classroom climate. Students who have a poor relationship with their teachers and see the classroom environment as less open are more prepared to join illegal protests. In such classrooms, students seldom publicly express views that disagree with a teacher, or the teacher rarely provides alternative viewpoints. Furthermore, students who don’t see compliance with the law as an important attribute of a good adult citizen are more prone to take part in illegal protests later in life.

READ MORE: Young hotheads need to beware the high price of violence and disorder in Hong Kong

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The 14-year-olds who participated in the study are now youths aged 21-22. We do not know whether any took part in the Mong Kok upheaval. Yet this data tells us clearly that some young people in Hong Kong, and elsewhere, have strong feelings about their future civic participation. They do not see themselves as disengaged from civic issues, they see themselves as negatively engaged. We need to take this very seriously and not assume they will “grow out of it”.

There are many things we must do to avoid another Mong Kok: we need better and more focused civic education in schools; better communication between adolescents and their parents on political issues; more opportunities for young people to work in and for the community; and, in particular, a guarantee of productive employment. However, these individual efforts will be of no use if both the national and local governments do not listen more to young people, act to enable them to be part of Hong Kong’s development, and stem the tide of alienation.

No one wants to see another Mong Kok upheaval. Governments would do well to follow the wise words of Martin Luther King when he said that “social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention”.

Professor Magdalena Mok Mo Ching is director of the Assessment Research Centre at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. Professor Kerry Kennedy is director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at HKIEd