Universities seen as key to dialogue with disaffected youth

Government officials have indicated that universities will be key to reaching out to Hong Kong’s disaffected youth who turned out in huge numbers in recent protest marches against a proposed extradition bill and were among those who spearheaded ransacking of the legislature on 1 July.

With Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam rarely seen in public during the demonstrations and legislature unrest, and unwilling to be seen to be holding any kind of dialogue with students or showing sympathy to their demands, officials behind the scenes in Hong Kong have said universities will have to play a crucial role.

Student leaders from eight of Hong Kong’s tertiary institutions – Chinese University, University of Hong Kong, University of Science and Technology, Baptist University, Polytechnic University, City University, Education University and the Academy for Performing Arts – said on Friday that they would only consider talking to the chief executive if it is an open dialogue and if the government promises to drop all charges against protesters.

Lam’s office said the chief executive had wanted the talks to be behind closed doors because she wanted a “frank exchange”.

Student unions at the Chinese University of Hong Kong or CUHK and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology or HKUST said they suspected the government was trying to split student unity by offering talks to student leaders at just two universities.

A statement from the student union at HKUST on 4 July said the Hong Kong government had approached it through a university administration intermediary asking for a closed-door meeting. But the students had declined any such meeting.

Students on edge

Universities in Hong Kong are currently closed for vacations, but student groups have said that many young people are “on edge” as police announce arrests linked to the demonstrations.

Some 50 arrests have been recorded by independent groups related to the larger demonstrations, with around a dozen so far linked to the 1 July storming of the legislature.

The approach to student groups indicated that the authorities were concerned about simmering anger and continued rallying that could provoke more unrest, students said.

“They realise that young people feel they have nothing to lose and will continue to oppose the government,” stated a student named Lam, who said she was studying at Hong Kong University.

HKUST students laid out conditions for dialogue – the total withdrawal of the extradition bill, which has only been suspended in the wake of huge demonstrations involving up to two million Hong Kong people; dropping of the designation as a ‘riot’ of demonstrations prior to 1 July (that characterisation is important as it is subject to punitive jail terms); and an independent commission of inquiry to hold the police accountable.

The student group added that any talks should be open to all Hong Kong citizens. “Everyone should have the right to speak, to clarify and question the Hong Kong government.”

“All sectors of the community have expressed opposition to the [extradition] bill. It will not be possible for students to represent those who are fighting it by speaking to the Hong Kong government.”

The president of CUHK’s student union, Jacky So, said Lam could have listened to the public much earlier if she had wanted to.

“She actually had plenty of opportunities to communicate with the public in the whole of June, but she didn’t. Then she suddenly found two student unions to have communication but shows no sincerity. We think it’s just a public show,” So told local radio, describing the move as “too little, too late”.

Universities speak out

HKUST President Wei Shyy said in a statement released on 2 July that the urgent task was to diffuse tensions and restart dialogue. He noted a wider problem than just opposition to the extradition bill.

“Observing how things unfolded over the past few weeks, the situation can’t be interpreted as a sign of temporary or single topic [related to the extradition bill] only. We need to acknowledge that the protesters, many of them youngsters and students, would want to commit such acts even though they are fully aware of the consequences.”

He said it was essential that all parties “adopt an open and approachable attitude in listening to one another by means of direct conversation. It is difficult, but this is what has to be done. Repeating identical statements or persistent confrontation will only bring more divide…”.

President of the University of Hong Kong Xiang Zhang released a statement on 3 July condemning the violence that occurred in the legislative council building. “I urge all parties to communicate in a rational and pragmatic manner and make an effort to resolve differences without resorting to confrontations.”

Key pro-Beijing figures have also called for inclusion of other voices, such as students and young people.

They included Lau Siu-kai, an emeritus professor of sociology noted for his hardline support for restricting the nominations for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. He is a Hong Kong delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the Beijing legislature.

“Instead of changing the political system right away, which is almost impossible, the [Hong Kong] government should allow more political forces and different interests, particularly young people, to participate in the policy-making process and to make the policies more beneficial to more people,” he said.

CUHK President Rocky Tuan said in an open letter on 5 July addressed to students, staff and alumni: “We are all saddened and distressed by the recent conflicts, confrontations and precipitating confidence crisis in our city. If unchecked, the social rift would only widen further until it is beyond repair.

“To navigate out of the present impasse, it is imperative that all parties of society have an open mind in the pursuit of a way forward.”

Tuan went further than other university heads, suggesting “the expeditious establishment of a platform acceptable to a large cross-section of the society for the purpose of enabling constructive and effective dialogues between the government and citizens from different age groups, social backgrounds and political persuasions”.

He said this would “shed light on a way forward and put the society on the path of reconciliation”.

Universities are keen not to inflame student anger further.

After the mid-June demonstrations a history teaching assistant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said he would fail all undergraduates who went to the protests – and was relieved of his teaching duties for the upcoming academic year by the history department, which is also looking into whether disciplinary action is warranted.

The matter of identity

In a survey by the Public Opinion Programme at Hong Kong University, known as HKUPOP, released on 27 June and conducted after two huge marches against the extradition bill, 53% of more than 1,000 interviewees identified as Hongkongers, while 11% identified as Chinese. Some 12% identified as ‘Chinese in Hong Kong’, and 23% identified as ‘Hongkongers in China’.

When asked if they were proud of being a national citizen of China, 71% said ‘no’. Some 90% in the age group 18-29 answered ‘no’.

“In-depth analyses show that the younger the respondents, the less likely they feel proud of becoming a national citizen of China, and also the more negative they are toward the Central Government’s policies on Hong Kong,” said HKUPOP Senior Data Analyst Edward Tai.

In the legislative chamber on 1 July young people spray-painted over the white bauhinia flower emblem above the speaker’s chair. Chinese characters for ‘People’s Republic of China’ were blackened, with only ‘Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’ visible.

This story was amended on 5 July to include remarks by CUHK President Rocky Tuan.