Carrie Lam wants Hong Kong youth to join the policymaking club, but can they impress the insiders?
Alice Wu says the chief executive has her heart in the right place on greater youth representation in advisory bodies, but warns that navigating the dominant power dynamics would bring its own risks and challenges for the 11 young people who make the cut
Young Hongkongers aged 18 to 35, who see themselves as committed to serving the community, with a good grasp of policy issues and good analytical and communication skills, are invited to recommend themselves for consideration by a nine-member government recruitment committee, which will judge whether the applicants’ self-assessment of their commitment and skills is good enough for them to be members of five government advisory committees.
If this sounds like an inviting idea to you, I congratulate you for being gifted with an impenetrable sense of self-worth.
Working to encourage civic participation, and public and community service, is a worthwhile aim. To want to include young people or other under-represented demographics is honourable and smart. If the government wishes for society to be inclusive, taking the lead is the very crucial first step.
Widening the perspectives and backgrounds pool leads to a variety of ideas and approaches. It builds acceptance of differences and attracts talented people to join decision- and policymakers.
The chief executive has made diversity recruitment deliberate, having pledged to increase youth representation in advisory committees to 15 per cent in her policy address. So far so good: the heart is in the right place.
Key points from Carrie Lam’s first policy address as Hong Kong chief executive
But whether those who execute Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s vision can help enrich these advisory committees or broaden the government’s understanding of and approaches to tackling real social issues is the real test. And, unfortunately, they may fall short.
The fact is, these advisory groups are deemed in-groups, their members long “recruited”. What the government is essentially “selling” to the public is the opportunity for those in the out-group to prove their worth and be judged by those already “in” to be worthy of being let in. This leaves a definite patronising bad taste in the mouth.
We’ve heard recruitment committee members disagree over whether political activism should be considered an asset or a liability. For an initiative aimed at inclusivity and engagement, we are already hearing of grounds for exclusion.
And while self-nomination and assessment based on meritocracy should be welcomed, it is reasonable to question whether it is enough. Eleven new young people in the government machine by the first quarter of 2018, at the earliest, will have to bear a huge responsibility as agents of change.
We trust that Lam didn’t pull “15 per cent” out of a hat when she made the youth membership pledge. Scientific studies have been conducted on how the size of the minority affects its influence. The consensus seems to be 15 per cent; any less and, as Nilofer Merchant, author of The Power of Onlyness, says, “it’s harder to voice your own ideas” and “there’s tremendous pressure to assimilate for your own survival rather than risking your place in the group by challenging the majority”. Merchant puts the critical mass needed for changing the power dynamics at 30 per cent, for them to be no longer treated as the “other”.
So, even at 15 per cent, young members have to navigate the power dynamics of the dominant group to effect change.
This is a tall order. Studies also show that minority influence is more likely if their views are consistent, flexible and appealing to the majority. A seat at the table is necessary, but their task is cut out.
If the government is just going to count on young recruits to prove themselves and win over the rest of the membership, then it’ll become one big show and further alienate the youth by their being used as mere pawns.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA