HK's student leaders have lost their sense of direction

What distinguishes Hong Kong from other places is its people - hardworking, versatile, compassionate, peace-loving and concerned about the environment. Many are also ready to make huge sacrifices to fight for their dreams.

During my days as an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, from 1969-72, Hong Kong people were pictured as politically apathetic and as "economic men". At the time, young people were not interested in politics as such and the vast majority of students were not politically active. Yet there was then a movement among student activists for "learning about China and caring about society".

Quite a few students were concerned about the poor living conditions of some people. When news reached Hong Kong that the United States had transferred the Okinawa Islands along with the Diaoyu Islands to Japan, many students took up the issue and protested to Japan and to the US. One of my junior university mates, Chan Yuk Cheung, lost his life on an expedition to the Diaoyu Islands.

Students were also concerned about English being the only official language in the Hong Kong government, and about corruption, and also about workers' rights. Students then were prepared to voice their aspirations. "Democracy", and in particular electoral democracy, was not on the agenda. Students had no intention of rocking the system, but wanted to make changes incrementally.

Although not "politically motivated", in many ways they were immensely successful. The Independent Commission Against Corruption was established. Chinese became an official language. Workers' rights were improved. Public hygiene and housing conditions were upgraded.

Today, Hong Kong students are in a sense like students during my day, still wishing to do good for their community. But it is clear to me that many student leaders have lost their sense of direction.

Protesters facing off with police after officials tried to remove illegal food sellers from Mongkok during the Chinese New Year holiday in Hong Kong on Feb 9.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Three problems undermine the legitimacy of their actions. First, they have confused means with ends. Second, they have lost the protocol of civilised behaviour. Finally, in picturing the government as the enemy, they are undermining the government's effectiveness to deliver services to the people.

Actually, their behaviour is deviating from the "universal values" they are supposed to cherish. Universal values by definition must be universal. But is it not possible that alternatives to "one man, one vote" may work better in electing a leader?

Supporters of "democracy" say multi-party politics and "one man, one vote" are a "universal value". But let us be open-minded. Is there any proof that multi-party politics and "one man, one vote" always work best among possible systems for selecting leaders?

Open-mindedness and tolerance for alternative views are some true universal values that all fair-minded people subscribe to. Following fair standards and procedures is a universal value. We all want to look for the most effective and fair way to find leaders who can serve the territory's best interests. But this search has to be within the legal framework of Hong Kong.

Social change based on a comparison between social costs and benefits is a universal value. Trying to force such change - while ignoring the social costs and benefits - simply because change is deemed desirable is irresponsible and reckless.

Political honesty and accountability are universal values. Who were the people who hid their faces and who hurled bricks and burnt garbage in the morning of the first day of the Chinese New Year? Is the claim that it was spontaneous an honest one? When someone hurls bricks at people, causes physical injury to scores of police officers and reporters, and still says it is not a riot, is there really any political honesty?


•The author is an adjunct professor and senior research fellow of the Pan Sutong Shanghai HK Economic Research Policy Centre, Lingnan University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2016, with the headline 'HK's student leaders have lost their sense of direction'. Print Edition | Subscribe