Hong Kong's young protesters can't be pigeonholed, and neither can their problems - they are not so easily dismissed

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 16.09, 15/09/2019
Hong Kong's young protesters can't be pigeonholed, and neither can their problems - they are not so easily dismissed

If there's one thing about Hong Kong's crisis that individuals from both sides of the political aisle could agree on, it's that there are deeply rooted issues with the city. One concerns Hong Kong's young people, who have played a prominent role in this summer's events.

The establishment characterises our young as disillusioned due to exorbitant housing prices, social immobility and economic inequalities. The pan-democrats frame them as champions of democracy and freedom. Localists and radical youngsters see themselves as resisting the encroachment on their core political liberties and security.

Meanwhile, the government seems content with seeing young people as having misunderstood a well-intentioned extradition bill and largely propelled by a desire for more financial handouts.

In reality, the causes are probably all of the above - and more.

The establishment has understood one thing correctly - the city's socioeconomic inequalities are dire. To pontificate on them would be to ignore the causes. Hong Kong's education system is increasingly uncompetitive, a result of overworked teachers and a rigid curriculum.

Many graduates work in low-end, white-collar jobs with minimal promotion prospects. A disproportionate amount of income is concentrated in a few prestigious sectors - law, finance, consultancy - dominated by graduates from relatively privileged socioeconomic or education backgrounds.

Given the surging costs of living, the increasing thinning out of "non-prestigious" sectors, and the absence of serious investment in education resources (such as paying lecturers a decent salary), it is no wonder that Hong Kong's young people and their talents are squandered in positions far beneath their potential.

Unemployment is not the prime issue; underemployment is. Given this, how can young people feel hopeful of ascending the steep social ladder?

Yet, we should not foolishly believe that the summer has merely been the product of socioeconomic woes. Some have suggested that Hong Kong youths are driven by post-materialist values. This may be the case for some; for others, they may simply be looking for basic accountability and transparency.

There is a deep distrust in the Hong Kong government. This stems from the lack of public consultation or youth involvement in decision-making, in suboptimal or non-existent articulation of why ponderous, grandiose projects are implemented, and in the lethargic scepticism towards a government that seemingly prioritises engaging the business elite over people on the street.

Recent events have only exacerbated such animosities - the extradition bill, while flawed, is certainly no longer driving the protests.

What fuels the anger of many ordinary citizens is how the Hong Kong government has mishandled the issue, from the lack of communication and consultation to its inability to alleviate public frustration and concern about law enforcement.

These blunders have caused an escalation of tensions to national and international levels, dragging Beijing into a storm it played no part in creating. Property damage, politically fuelled vigilantism, and affected livelihoods are just the tip of the iceberg of the costs to Hong Kong.

I remain convinced that most young people in Hong Kong harbour no intrinsic, intractable resentment towards mainland China. The Hong Kong government, in theory, plays a crucial role in mediating and maintaining a channel of communication between Beijing and the Hong Kong public. Yet, recent years have seen a rising polarisation of young people's views of the mainland and also between Hong Kong and the mainland.

Given Hong Kong's increasing economic and social ties with the mainland, such vitriol is counterproductive and unhelpful to the maintenance of "one country, two systems" as a mutually beneficial governance model.

What are the lessons? Firstly, young people are not a homogenous bloc and are likely to be motivated by a range of pent-up frustrations about the status quo. To imagine they are incensed by a single issue is, at best, negligent ignorance, and at worst, wilful political manipulation from all sides. Hoping for one panacea to the crisis is wishful thinking.

Secondly, rather than inferring what young people believe through the lens of unverified or biased news sources, we could simply listen to the plurality of voices, differing in beliefs, tactics and values. We should reject violence and seek to tackle lawlessness - but how can this be done without conscientious listening and soul-searching on the part of the government?

Thirdly, the crisis has not ended but the government can act. The city is on the brink of irrevocable polarisation. We can avoid this by committing to genuine and systemic political reforms.

In a city where routes into formal politics are so opaque and inaccessible, surely more could be done to allow our youths - our future generation - to contribute to the designing of the city's future. What better way to understand our youth than to go beyond token committees to absorb their voices into existing political structures?

Hong Kong is home to everyone - not just the rich and powerful.

Brian YS Wong is a Master of Philosophy student of politics (political theory) at Wolfson College, Oxford University.

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