Scholars' Blog

14 December 2018
Brian Wong
By Brian Wong

Hong Kong’s Youth Can, and Should Do More in Public Service

When I speak to some of my friends about their thoughts on the future of Hong Kong, their reactions are inevitably pessimistic, if not indifferent. Some are skeptical about the extent to which 1 Country, 2 Systems can be maintained; many are pessimistic towards the prospects for political stability and an end to existing infighting; a majority are of the view that there is little that we, as individual citizens, could possibly do against the structural forces driving our city and its relations with the mainland.

I am of the view that we have ground for greater optimism. There is much that young Hong Kongers can, and should do in servicing the wider 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 the Legislative Council elections. Cynics seem to miss the point about elections – to them, elections are ostensibly only useful if one wins them and manages to successfully take office; yet this view neglects the power of elections in platforming underrepresented voices; generating credibility, experience, and social capital for aspiring candidates to subsequently lobby and form pressure groups, and shaping the Overton window of political discourse. Two elections ago, talk of a moderate, reasonable third pathway; or self-determination (irrespective of their substantive feasibility or desirability), would never have been imaginable. Through contesting District and Legislative Councils, we youths could compel mainstream parties to take our agendas and issues seriously. Whilst localism has fizzled out due to both blunders and unrealistic aspirations, we have cause for hope in other, distinctly more pragmatic youth voices.

Yet the legislative is not the sole means for political change. Schemes aspiring to incorporate the 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 youths to put forth policy proposals, suggestions, and insights directly to members of the civil service and the Cabinet. Carrie Lam’s administration should consider offering a wider range of opportunities – across a plurality of forms (district, bureau-based, and city-wide) – for aspirational youths 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 harbourers of innovation and vision, and incorporate them into their platforms. As youths, we can make a difference without participating in the often frustrating debates in the LegCo.

Moreover, we should note that the political is not the sole arena in which public service can take place. Community service is often led by the civil sector, where there is much room for youths to instigate positive, if not radical, changes. 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 youths 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 as disillusioned with the political scene as my fellow peers are, then we not turn to the 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 generations, who are far more privileged, qualified, and capable than 20, 30 year olds who lack substantial life experiences?

This is a mistaken attitude that is dangerously reminiscent of the dismissive rhetoric employed by older generations in disparaging youth politicians. We should do more, because we can – if we are in a position to help a starving homeless person on the streets and choose not to, this deliberate decision renders our omission just as morally problematic as indirectly causing their suffering. Many of us are endowed with substantial privileges, from financial advantages to educational opportunities; it thus behooves us to utilise our 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 inequalities and declining social mobility rates. The advantaged members of the youth have actively benefited from and may well be complicit in such inequalities – whether it be in terms of their greater competitiveness for scarce educational spaces, or 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 participation is thus not an option – it should be a duty that falls squarely upon each of us, as members of a generation that has gained much from society and who should give back as we can.

There are of course many amongst the youths who struggle under the conditions I discuss above – for them, political and social participation can be extremely costly in time, resources, and energy. Yet such individual costliness is precisely a reason for us to campaign and fight for greater emancipation of the demos – the solution to political exclusion is not apathy and tacit acceptance; but an active push for greater opening-up of both social and political structures.

Hong Kong stands at a critical juncture today: on one hand, political deadlocks may drag our beloved home into becoming a second-tier Chinese city; on the other, through the joint efforts of all – youths included – we uphold Hong Kong’s core values and status as a leading, global city. I certainly hope that it is the latter that comes true.


About the author
Brian Wong, Kwok Scholar 2015, is a MPhil in Politics student at the University of Oxford. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. This article was published on 14 December 2018 by South China Morning Post.