Reconciliation with our youth

September 16, 2022 09:13
There have been over 10,000 arrests made in relation to the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests; a significant number of these arrestees are youth. Photo: Reuters

There are certainly better times to be a youth in Hong Kong.

With skyrocketing property prices, a monolithic economy that is running out of ideas (though by no means growth), and increasingly stiff competition from not just across the border, but within the region, one thing is clear: to be born into an ordinary, middle or working-class family in Hong Kong, does not put oneself at a particularly advantageous position.

But the problem is not solely economic in nature. To think that one could resolve any and all malady amongst the youth in our city, by “just” fixing (by no means an easy feat) the housing task, would be somewhat delusional. There have been over 10,000 arrests made in relation to the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests; a significant number (over 2,000) of these arrestees are youth. Genuine reconciliation with these individuals is a moral prerogative – we must and can find ways to reintegrate these individuals into the society at large, as opposed to kicking them when they’re down.

Why does this prerogative come from? One way of putting it, bearing in mind the agency and autonomy of these individuals to some extent, is that we have collectively failed these youth. We have failed them in failing to incorporate their discontents, ameliorate their concerns, and absorb their voices into the establishment when doing so was in fact possible. We have failed them by allowing them to turn themselves into a combination of pawns and front-line ‘rooks’ on behalf of geopolitical forces that clearly have an eye on transforming Hong Kong into a raucous town of anti-Chinese sentiments. We have failed them by refusing to grant them opportunities to participate in economic, social, or policymaking structures. We have failed to listen – and thus we are here to pay for the lesson.

Yet this view may not be one with which most in the establishment would find agreeable. Indeed, saying the above would risk – emphasis upon risk given the zeitgeist – one’s being castigated as a sympathiser (though those who know my stance would know that I am far from one: my views on the 2019 riots are pretty clear). So here’s another take. We have forward-looking duties to bring about a more harmonious and stable Hong Kong – we owe it not only to our country, but also to our fellow citizens, taxpayers, and those who have toiled ceaselessly to fight for Hong Kong’s economic prosperity and financial stability, to fix our community, and to repair the frayed bonds that would otherwise come to haunt us. A broken and mistrustful society does not make for a particularly auspicious basis for future success.

We need to reconcile with the youth – including those who have been arrested, detained, prosecuted, and even those who are serving out their sentences in prisons or elsewhere. There are some who say we should give up on our youth: to them, I’d ask, Who are you, and who are you to say we can afford to give up the future of our city? No one has the right to write off a life. No mortal possesses such frightening, absolute authority. It behooves us to grant our young’uns a second chance.

So what does this look like? First, it is high time for non-profit organisations, philanthropists, and charities to take seriously the mental health and substantive welfare of the incarcerated and detained youth. The harsh conditions of the prison and detention center render one easily frightened, confused, and anxious; they compound the pre-existing pressures confronting vulnerable and marginalised youth and – by extension – come to haunt their families and friends, too. Charities and organisations should take a leaf or two from existing programmes designed to ameliorate and provide therapeutic support and counselling to youth who are struggling through the system.

Second, we must think critically about re-integration – that is, retraining and employment opportunities for those who have gone through the judicial process, and have come to their senses concerning the nature of their actions. I believe firmly in second chances – to be granted even if there is no forgiveness to be sought or given. We can offer second chances without expressing alongside it the judgment that the deeds done are wholly forgiven: the former is a much easier, and dare I say, reasonable ask.

Finally, there can be no reconciliation without fundamental transformation and overhaul to how our leaders and governing officials engage with our youth. Till the day our political structures truly incorporate and accommodate the diverse range of opinions and views that inhere in our next generation, there could be no true mending of rifts and bridging of divides.

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Assistant Professor, HKU