Back to School

When my eldest son came back from school with his O Level results many years ago, I was as pleased as punch: nine straight A’s. His Hong Kong mum had a different perspective: she wanted to know why one of the A’s did not have a star next to it. Eight A* plus one A required an explanation. This huge gap in expectations has been with me ever since. He went on to complete a degree at a leading university in the UK, something that had eluded his father. (Full disclosure: I have a degree from a UK university, but it was secured by studying externally).

His younger brother also did well and ended up graduating from Oxford. My only daughter was from a similar mould and now studies at a prominent university in the United States. My third son, from an academic perspective, had the misfortune to be closer to his father than his mother. But after a difficult period, he stepped up and with full family support the results improved over time. He too has now gone on to college in the UK and this column is being written from there as we help him settle in.

More than enough family history, but I use it only in order to illustrate something very real about Hong Kong families’ attitude to the importance of education. That approach has not changed in half a century. When I first arrived in this city many families were still poorly housed but every morning children in immaculate school uniforms would emerge from those rudimentary squatter huts and head off to learn how to build their future.

It is against this background that I have begun to wonder about the impact on the protest movement now that term has started. Reports so far have been mixed: some schools report very few dropouts while others seem to have been more seriously affected. It is early days – not all education institutions have resumed, after all – but my guess would be that within the next month or so the traditional reverence Hong Kong mums have for education will begin to kick in. Participation in political demonstrations is all very well, but career-wise it butters no parsnips.

There will also be a fall-off in involvement through sheer protest fatigue, and maybe some loss of enthusiasm as unemployment numbers start to rise. The belated agreement to use the word withdrawal in the context of the extradition bill saga will provide some comfort for those looking for an opportunity to begin a dialogue and search for reconciliation.

But it would be a mistake for the government to think it can simply ride out the storm and wait for passions to cool, as it did with the Occupy movement of 2014. One of the remarkable aspects of the last three months has been the way the older generation has stood behind the youngsters leading the charge. Who could ever forget the mothers in Chater Garden with their “Stop shooting our children” signs. And the public at large has been extraordinarily tolerant of the disruptions to daily life, at least up to now, though that understanding may be beginning to wear thin.

The first stress test at the airport on the last weekend of August stretched a lot of people’s patience to the limit, including it should be said this writer who returned on the Sunday in the middle of the mayhem. The second one, which is scheduled to take place while you are reading this, will hopefully be a lot less disruptive. After all, the protesters’ beef is with the government, not their fellow citizens.

It will nonetheless come as a reminder that even once school has resumed there will still be weekends and on the horizon the promise – or threat -- of the Christmas holidays. Moreover, at a deeper level there are still real issues that need to be addressed. One of the most revealing comments during this past few months was to the effect that the protesters had no stake in Hong Kong. At one level that remark could be read as rather callous and cold-hearted. A purist might argue that it was in any case not true because all residents of a place are by definition stakeholders. But to the extent that it is true it helps to define the problem and also steers us towards the solution: give them a stake. The two obvious ways to do this are to give everyone the reasonable prospect of a home of their own, and to bring forward universal suffrage for chief executive and a more representative legislature.

The first of these requires a dramatic initiative whereby the large amounts of flat developable land in the New Territories are brought promptly into use and not left sitting idle on the balance sheets of our major developers. The slogan to summarise the policy is dead easy: use it or lose it. Singapore provides an excellent model of the kind of policies which we could use to bring citizens and government together.

Some have started to step away from the promises in the Basic Law of a move towards greater democracy, pointing to the chaos of Brexit and the election of Trump as salutary examples of the dangers. These are certainly valid as warnings, but they should not be allowed to obscure the reality that most Hong Kong people are politically mature and moderate. They should not be deprived of the opportunity to show what they can do.

The three remaining “demands” of the protesters will have to be parked on one side for the time being. But they are still alive, and must be dealt with at some point. Personally I think Beijing will have its own view of the ministers’ performance and take the necessary measures in due course.

Meanwhile the individuals concerned need an urgent refresher on political leadership and accountability. Perhaps it is time they too went back to school.