Missing from Student Life: Politics

Democracy wall

University of Hong Kong Democracy Wall, 2009

When I first moved to Hong Kong three years ago, I was already accustomed to the particular quirks of local life, having spent around two and a half months exploring the city before I took the definitive flight from Canada. Getting used to life at the University of Hong Kong was another story.

No student bars, no lively campus media, no earnest political actions — student life in Hong Kong seemed remarkably dull compared to what I had gotten used to in Montreal. Travels around Asia suggested this was a uniquely Hong Kong problem, because the university campuses I visited in Taipei, Seoul, Beijing and Bangkok all had the kind of spark I normally associate with student life.

I don’t mean to be unfair to Hong Kong students. Some universities — the Chinese University in particular — have a strong activist tradition. But the atmosphere seems less concerned with intellectual engagement than with career advancement, and you’re far more likely to see a black-suited business student advertising a marketing conference than you are to see a fresh-faced, scruffy-haired animal-rights advocate promoting free vegan lunches next to the cafeteria.

What makes this especially perplexing is that, over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about Hong Kong’s so-called Post-80s Generation, a new wave of young political and cultural activists who are leading a campaign to make Hong Kong a more equitable, democratic and conscientious place. This generation certainly does exist — you saw it in the lively protests against the high-speed rail link to the mainland, in the movement to support Ai Wei Wei and again in the resurgent July 1st pro-democracy march — but it seems only to represent a small minority of young people in Hong Kong.

If anything, student apathy has reached new heights in Hong Kong, with student unions at three of the city’s seven universities unable to elect executive councils earlier this year. This spring, on assignment for the South China Morning Post, I went to one of Hong Kong’s newest schools, City University, to find out what was going on.

City University from above

At City University, only one slate of candidates stood for election and it received more votes against it than for it. So few students were interested in running for office that student council members were forced to appoint an acting executive council comprised of self-nominated students.

“Students are just not that interested in politics,” said Nicky Wong, a City University marketing student who served last year as external vice-president. I met him on a warm day at the Garden Café, a student cafeteria with cheap okra curry and baked spaghetti. “Some of us try and bring social and political issues into the university but we just don’t have much success.”

The problem became abundantly clear last fall. Normally, students begin the term in August by assembling rival slates of candidates to run in the November student union elections. But last year, only a single slate of students stepped forward for election and it was rejected at the polls.

“Students were upset because over the summer, the university raised prices in the canteen, and they thought we hadn’t done enough to avoid that,” Wong told me. “So they voted against the cabinet because some of the candidates were executives last year.”

Faced with an unprecedented electoral crisis, the student union decided to appoint an acting executive committee from among its own members, including several students who had stood for election in the failed cabinet.

“Our constitution only allows us to hold another election in special circumstances such as when there is electoral fraud,” said Oliver Liu, who was appointed acting president.

The new acting executive council is trying to raise awareness of its activities through the school media, mass emails and the university’s Democracy Wall, a bulletin board located next to the main library whose name is a reference to an early-1980s political uprising in mainland China. (Most Hong Kong universities have such a wall.) But its members admit that, without a mandate from students, it has struggled to generate much interest.

“Because we obtained our positions through nomination rather than through election, students are not very aware of who we are and what we are doing,” said Hazel Chan, the acting public relations secretary.

The story is similar at Lingnan University and the University of Science and Technology, which also failed to elect executive councils this year, according to Hong Kong Federation of Students Secretary General Daisy Chan. “It’s not quite common for this to happen, but it’s also always difficult to find students who are interested to join the executive,” she said.

Some students blame the lack of a mature political culture at many of Hong Kong’s younger universities. “We are only 20 years old but Chinese University has had a student union for 45 years,” said Amy Kwok, a former public relations secretary at City University.

One day, while walking through the City University campus, Kwok took me aside and gestured around here. “Our school’s environment also contributes a lot,” she said. “It feels like a shopping mall here. We have no open space to gather, so if we want to hold a discussion or an event, it takes a lot of organization. Students would rather just go across the street to spend time in Festival Walk,” a big mall across the street.

The problem goes far beyond City University, however. Even at Hong Kong’s most established universities, turnout for student elections rarely exceeds 30 percent, which suggests a broader trend of student disengagement.

Oliver Liu, who is originally from Sichuan, suggested to me that the rising numbers of mainland students at Hong Kong’s universities might contribute to the wall of political indifference. “Many students from the mainland are more conservative and they don’t want to talk about democracy,” he said. “When we put up posters about June 4th, we get comments written in simplified Chinese attacking us for putting them up.”

Part of the problem might be the student unions themselves. “I never saw any reason to get involved in student issues when I was an undergraduate,” said post-80s activist Kobe Ho, who studied at the University of Hong Kong in the early 2000s. She now runs a bookstore and art space in Wan Chai.

Chan Kai-yip, who served as president of the Hong Kong University Student Union in 2006 and who now works as an assistant to a legislative councillor, admits that most students feel disconnected from student politics because they don’t think it reflects their interests.

“They really think that the student union doesn’t represent them,” he said. “My own opinion is that the union works hard to represent their interests, but it doesn’t know how to promote itself and let the students know what it is doing for them, so people feel there is no use to vote or get involved.”

It could very well be that student unions represent an old model of political participation that is fast becoming obsolete. Paul Yip, the programme director of the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Social Work and Social Administration, has studied the level of social and political engagement among Hong Kong people in their teens and twenties.

“What we have seen in our data is that they seem to be more active than before, but the way they participate is different,” he said. “These post-80s and post-90s people like to have more informal participation. They might not like to sit on committees — instead, they like going on web platforms to exchange their views or try to mobilize the population.”

In a survey conducted last year for the government’s Central Policy Unit, Yip found that young people are becoming more politically active, but they have a low tolerance for political conventions and even less affinity for established political organizations. Nearly 64 percent of the young people who voted in the 2008 Legco elections say they may not vote for the same party in 2012.

What’s especially important to note, said Yip, is that despite rising levels of political engagement, the vast majority of young people are still mostly concerned with their personal lives, academic work and future careers.

“It’s a myth that most of the post-80s are very active in politics,” he said. “In our survey it showed only a small minority are active. That’s also true on campus. Many young people would spend their time and energy doing something else.”

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday July 06 2011at 03:07 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Politics, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Missing from Student Life: Politics”

  • C. Szabla says:

    I think you might be relying too strongly on university politics as a proxy for overall student political activity here. There’s a similar disengagement from and/or apathy to student council races at US universities, but it’s not necessarily indicative of attitudes toward participation in national politics.