How Hong Kong’s dispirited youth can be a force for change by looking beyond politics
- Brian YS Wong says while contesting elections is a valuable experience for young people, they could also consider other forms of public service, such as taking part in government schemes or joining non-profit organisations
When I speak to some of my friends about their thoughts on the future of Hong Kong, their reactions are inevitably pessimistic. Some are sceptical about the extent to which “one country, two systems” can be maintained; many are despondent about the prospects for political stability and an end to the infighting; a majority are of the view that there is little we, as individuals, can do against the structural forces driving our city and its relations with the mainland.
I believe we have grounds for greater optimism. There is much that young Hongkongers can and should do to serve society. Let’s start with the question of “can”. The most obvious means of making an instant or substantive change to the political structure is through contesting Legislative Council elections.
Cynics seem to miss the point about elections – to them, they are ostensibly only useful if one wins and takes office. This view neglects the power of elections in giving under-represented voices a platform, generating credibility, experience and social capital for aspiring candidates to subsequently lobby and form pressure groups, and shaping the Overton window – the range of acceptable ideas – of political discourse.
Two elections ago, talk of a moderate, reasonable third pathway, or of self-determination, irrespective of their substantive feasibility or desirability, would never have been imaginable. By contesting district and Legco polls, we youth could compel mainstream parties to take our agendas and issues seriously. While localism has fizzled out due to both blunders and unrealistic aspirations, other, distinctly more pragmatic, youth voices offer cause for hope.
Yet the legislative route is not the sole means of political change. Schemes that aspire to incorporate youth within the existing political structure – ranging from the Youth Self-Recommendation Scheme to the reformed Central Policy Unit – offer opportunities for more governance-minded young people to put forward policy proposals, suggestions and insights directly to members of the civil service and ministers.
Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s administration should consider offering a wider range of opportunities across a plurality of forms – district, bureau-based and citywide – for youth interested in public service to experience the intricacies of governance and policymaking. Existing policy think tanks and advocacy groups should also recognise the potency of youths as harbingers of innovation and vision, and incorporate them into their platforms. We can make a difference without taking part in the often frustrating debates in Legco.
Moreover, the political arena is not the only one where public service can take place. Community service is often led by the civil sector, where there is much room for youth to instigate positive, if not radical, change. From creative start-ups propelled by impact investment, to starting non-profit organisations aimed at assisting the disenfranchised, to engaging in online or public discourse about issues of social justice – we can play a far greater role in the consolidation and maintenance of Hong Kong’s civil society than we currently do.
We must do away with the fixation with politics: if we are indeed disillusioned with the political scene, then why not turn to non-political spaces where our voices can and do matter?
Having established the “can”, let’s consider the “why”. Indeed, why should Hong Kong’s youth do more? Surely public service is the responsibility of the government and the older generation, who are far more privileged, qualified and capable than 20-to-30-year-olds who lack substantial life experience?
This is a mistaken attitude that is dangerously reminiscent of the dismissive rhetoric employed by older generations in disparaging young politicians. We should do more, because we can – if we are in a position to help a starving homeless person on the street and choose not to, this decision renders our omission just as morally problematic as indirectly causing their suffering. Many of us have substantial privileges, from financial advantages to educational opportunities; we should use these privileges effectively and efficiently, in the interests of our fellow citizens.
We should do more, because we owe it to the prospective beneficiaries of our public service. Hong Kong is one of the most unequal societies on the planet, with substantial socioeconomic inequality and declining social mobility rates.
Advantaged youth have benefited from and may well be complicit in such inequalities – whether it be in terms of their greater competitiveness for scarce educational spaces, in their participation in corporate structures that indirectly reinforce inequalities, or in the political apathy and failure to vote and vocalise on behalf of the marginalised.
Political and public participation should be a duty for each of us, as members of a generation that has gained much from society.
There are, of course, many young people who struggle under the conditions described above – for them, political and social participation can be extremely costly in terms of time, resources and energy. Yet, this is precisely a reason for us to campaign and fight for greater emancipation of the people. The solution to political exclusion is not apathy and tacit acceptance but an active push for a greater opening up of both social and political structures.
Hong Kong stands at a critical juncture: political deadlock may see it become a second-tier Chinese city. Yet, through the efforts of all – youth included – we can uphold Hong Kong’s core values and status as a leading, global city.
Brian YS Wong is a Master of Philosophy student of politics (political theory) at Wolfson College, Oxford