Youth participation: Accommodating youth views in advisory and statutory bodies



The issue of youth participation in Hong Kong politics has been hotly debated for many years, particularly after the Occupy Central movement.[1] According to the Youth Quality of Life Index Report, published by the Centre for Quality of Life at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the index for the youth’s perceived impact on policy in Hong Kong dropped by nearly 10.2% from 2014/15 to 2015/16.[2] Professor Wong Hung, the Centre for Quality of Life director, stated that young people “do not have participation in youth policy formulation and implementation” and felt “powerless” in influencing the Government.

By contrast, the Chairman of the Commission on Youth (CoY) released a Youth Development Index in October 2016 which depicted a more positive outlook for young people in the domain of “civic participation”.[3] Based on statistics from three selected indicators, namely voters’ registration rate, voter turnout rates in Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, and volunteering rate, the index for youth civic participation improved every year since 2006. The index score for civic participation increased from 159.1 in 2014 to 166.0 in 2015.

Could a youth quota increase youth consultation in politics?

Including more young people in decision-making could help resolve societal issues by promoting the expression of balanced and representative views that would benefit youth and Hong Kong as a whole. To that end, in the 2017 Chief Executive (CE) election candidate platform of John Tsang Chun-wah, the former Financial Secretary (FS) of Hong Kong, Tsang proposed that a ratio be set up for appointing young people to “certain government advisory boards and committees”.[4] His principal rival, former Chief Secretary (CS) Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, suggested that “in time, all [advisory and statutory committees] will be required to appoint a certain proportion of young members”.[5] Lam also proposed forming a “Youth Development Commission” chaired by the CS to steer relevant bureaux on youth development initiatives, and the authorities “should consider appointing at least a certain proportion of members of the new Commission from the young generation”. Woo Kwok-hing, the third candidate in the CE election, did not make any specific proposals to increase youth participation in his manifesto.[6]

Currently, interested individuals – including youths – can indicate their willingness to participate in Advisory and Statutory Bodies (ASBs) by submitting their curriculum vitae for consideration.[7] Lam has suggested implementing a “self-recommendation mechanism” for ASBs which will, in her words, “provide more opportunities for youth to participate in public policy discussions”. While some LegCo members have previously called on the Government to enlist more young people to join ASBs such as the CoY, other members have argued that the CoY should ideally have a “balanced mix of representatives of various age groups and backgrounds”.[8]

ASBs are meant to facilitate the Government in obtaining the best possible advice on which to base decisions. Thus, if young people become involved in ASBs, this may increase their opportunities to contribute to policy discussions on issues important to their age group. In former CE Tung Chee-hwa’s 2000 Policy Address, he urged ASBs to “co-opt more distinguished younger members of the community so that we can get a better perspective of the views and aspirations of the younger generation”.[9] In June 2016, the Home Affairs Bureau (HAB) stated that “the Government has appointed persons aged 35 or below to advisory and statutory bodies of many key areas, such as youth development, economy, commerce and trading, education, training, employment, social welfare, planning and environmental protection, art, culture, and technological development,” while noting that 17 of the 31 members of the CoY were aged 35 or below at the time of their appointment.[10]

Youth are underrepresented to a certain extent in ASBs

The Government does not regularly disclose information on the ages of ASB members. In September 2008, the total number of members under the age of 30 was revealed to be 53, or 1.2% of all members, according to the HAB.[11] In 2010, former Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing noted that only 25 ASBs (6.4% of the total of 390 ASBs at the time) had appointed at least one non-official member who was aged 30 or below.[12]

The number of young ASB members relative to the number of youth in Hong Kong is not necessarily indicative of youth participation in politics. Under the principle of appointment by merit, it will be difficult for the Government to structure ASBs in a way that perfectly mirrors the demographics of the general population. Still, it may be helpful to assess the size of the youth population in 2016 and in 2010, the year in which the most recent figures for youth ASB members were revealed, as reference points. In mid-2010, according to the Census and Statistics Department, the proportion of people aged 15 to 29 was at 20.1%; for people aged 15 to 24, the percentage was 12.5%.[13] In mid-2016, people aged 15 to 29 comprised 17.4% of the population, while people aged 15 to 24 comprised 10.4%.[14] The percentage of the population under 40 was 47.9% in mid-2010 and 44.3% in mid-2016.

Appointment by merit and the gender benchmarks

As the HAB website states, the Government makes appointments to ASBs on the basis of merit, taking into account “a candidate’s ability, expertise, experience, integrity and commitment to public service,” with due regard to the provisions and functions of the bodies concerned.[15] The Bureau has stated as a matter of policy that when making appointments to ASBs, there should be no discrimination on the grounds of “gender, age, race, disability, religion, marital status, sexual orientation or social background”.[16] The HAB also has a “six-year rule” whereby non-official members should not serve on the same body in any one capacity for more than six years to ensure healthy turnover of members.

Women have historically been underrepresented in ASBs. In 2004, after the Women’s Commission of Hong Kong raised concerns over the fact that less than 25% of ASB members were women, the Government established a “25% gender benchmark”.[17] The rationale behind this benchmark was to enable the Government to benefit from the advice of both genders during the policy formulation process.[18] In this regard the basic rationale behind youth quotas and gender benchmarks is similar insofar as they represent efforts to ensure that the voices of underrepresented groups are sufficiently heard. After setting the benchmark, the Government affirmed that at least 25% of appointed non-official members of ASBs should be either male or female, “in overall terms” for all ASBs, with flexibility to the circumstances of respective ASBs and the principle of appointment by merit prevailing.

In June 2010 the target percentage was increased to 30%, and it was further increased to 35% in 2015. The ratio was increased to reflect the steadily rising proportion of women in ASBs. As of June 2016, the women’s participation rate across all ASBs with government-appointed non-official members was 31.7%, according to the HAB. Notwithstanding the increase in women members, women are still underrepresented in ASBs as well as in the top level of government, according to the honorary president of the All-China Women’s Federation Hong Kong Delegates Association Connie Wong Wai-ching.[19]

Who would be classified as a “youth” under a youth quota?

Though benchmarks have arguably increased women’s involvement in policymaking, quotas may not be as helpful when applied to young people. For example, while most individuals maintain the same gender identity from birth, age is a status that changes over time. Even in a society that discriminates between people on grounds of age, equal treatment and representation is still possible over the course of a person’s lifetime, which is not the case with regard to gender discrimination.[20] Also, as young people become older, they may become less aligned with the interests of younger generations.

As opposed to the male and female genders, there is no clear definition for “youth”. In December 2016, the Secretary for Home Affairs Lau Kong-wah referred to statistics showing that the Government appointed ASB members under the age of 35 “to further enhance communication with young people”.[21] Yet in the “Youth in Hong Kong: A Statistical Profile 2015” report prepared by the Social Sciences Research Centre of the University of Hong Kong, “youth” were defined as those aged 15 to 24.[22] For statistical purposes, the United Nations (UN) defines youth as persons between the ages of 15 to 24.[23] Thus, before setting a youth quota, the Government would first have to define who is considered to be a youth. This may be difficult since age is inherently different from gender or race and any such definition would be vulnerable to claims of under- or over-inclusiveness.

What would the ratio be?

Second, the ideal ratio for youth participation would have to be established. The 25% gender benchmark in 2004 was derived in part from UN Economic and Social Council resolution 1990/15, which called on governments to adopt a 30% minimum proportion of women in leadership positions by 1995.[24] The rationale was that if women held at least 30% of leadership positions, this would be a “critical mass” that would enable women to have a visible impact on the style and content of political decisions.[25] The Women’s Commission advocated the adoption of these standards with regard to ASBs to ensure that Hong Kong met basic international requirements for women’s participation in government.[26]

The UN has not adopted any such standards for youth participation, in part because the UN believes that “there is a need for a collective and better understanding of what youth participation involves [and] how it can be implemented for all youth ages”.[27] In the case of ASBs, it seems impractical that a youth quota could be established near the “critical mass” of 30% for women as mentioned by the UN. But if a quota was set too low, for example at less than 5%, this could be criticised as being a token gesture that would not lead to any significant improvements for youth representation, especially since people under the age of 40 made up 44.3% of the population in mid-2016. The 25% gender benchmark did not face these difficulties because the UN had clearly established a pre-existing international standard to guide the Government’s efforts.

Which ASBs should the ratio apply to?

As opposed to the existing gender benchmarks, which do not apply to individual ASBs but rather all ASBs in “overall terms,” John Tsang’s platform suggested setting youth ratios for only “certain government advisory boards and committees”. This is a pragmatic suggestion because there are likely to be some ASBs that perform functions more closely related to youth issues than others, such as the CoY. Moreover, this reflects the present reality wherein young ASB members are concentrated in areas such as youth development, education, and animal rights, rather than being dispersed across all ASBs. Restricting the youth quota to certain ASBs would make it easier to attain a target rate of participation.

However, determining which ASBs are engaged in “youth issues” can be highly subjective. One could argue that just as women’s issues are an integral part of many areas of policy, youth issues should also be seen as an essential component in many aspects of the Government’s work, not just in stereotypical youth matters. As the table below shows, in 2016, the top five ASBs with at least 10 members based on the proportion of women appointed cover a variety of areas beyond stereotypical women’s issues. These include the Council of the Hong Kong Baptist University and the Public Libraries Advisory Committee.

By contrast, according to former Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing, the five ASBs with the highest proportion of members under 30 in 2008 were the Dogs and Cats Classification Board, the Committee on Services for Youth at Risk, the Appeal Board Panel under the Rabies Ordinance, the Award Council of the Hong Kong Award for Young People, and the CoY.[28] These ASBs are arguably narrower in scope than the women-dominated ASBs because they essentially cover two topics: youth and pets.

Could a youth quota be anti-meritocratic?

Establishing a youth quota for all ASBs could be interpreted as an anti-meritocratic measure. As Professor Juliana Bidadanure from Stanford University notes, the absence of young people in government is likely due to their lack of experience; therefore the exclusionary criteria in the case of young people is still somewhat relevant to the position of holding government office, which cannot be said about gender or race-based discrimination.[29] Since the HAB has stated that it will consider a candidate’s “ability, expertise, experience, integrity and commitment to public service” in appointing ASB members, it can be argued that the Government may be compelled to appoint unqualified or inexperienced young candidates to fill the quotas. This could contribute to a dismissive attitude towards young ASB members insofar as they may be perceived as being undeserving of their positions.

There may also be concerns that suitable youth with sufficient life and work experience along with academic qualifications may not be interested in accepting such positions. It is difficult to assess how many capable young people would be willing to serve in an ASB. However, as the table below shows, the increased turnout rate from 2012 to 2016 among young voters in the LegCo elections demonstrates a heightened level of political participation, which might indicate that more young people would be interested in consulting the Government. It should be noted that the turnout rate among voters under the age of 40 was still lower than the turnout rate for voters over the age of 40 in both the 2012 and the 2016 LegCo elections.

Would youth quotas lead to mere “token representation” for youth?

While the Government may be sincere in its desire to listen to youth perspectives, increasing the number of youth ASB members may not necessarily lead to concrete actions that benefit society as a whole. Dr. Rosanna Wong Yick-ming, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, asserts that “we must avoid token representation [in advisory boards and committees] simply for appearance sake”.[30] Dr. Wong is sceptical of “superficial tokenism” whereby young people are invited to sit on committees without having any real capacity to influence decisions. In her view, placing a few youth on ASBs can promote “a certain arrogance in ‘adults’ who then feel they are best placed to make decisions”.

Whether or not a youth quota is established, it will be important for the Government to ensure that young people who participate in ASBs are able to do so in a meaningful and ongoing way. As Dr. Wong affirms, “to ensure sustainability in youth participation, we as adults need to change our attitude towards young people. This can only be achieved – honestly and emphatically – if we believe that the participation of young people has merit”. In analysing the candidates’ proposals to increase youth participation, a Ming Pao editorial opined that both Carrie Lam and John Tsang should make clear “how they would make sure that young people’s participation would actually affect policy-making,” so that their ideas are not perceived as being “public-relations gimmicks of little consequence”.[31]

Recruiting more youth to the Central Policy Unit

In addition to proposing that more youth be recruited to ASBs, Carrie Lam’s manifesto also suggested revamping the Central Policy Unit (CPU), which is a government think tank that provides policy advice to the CE, the CS and the FS. Lam declared that she would recruit “20 to 30 young people with different backgrounds…to join the Government as non-civil service contract staff” of the CPU, to conduct “policy research” and collect public views, especially from young people.[32] In so doing Lam asserted that the “views and suggestions of young people can be taken into consideration in the early stage of policy formulation”.

The CPU does not disclose the ages of its employees, so it is not clear how significantly this proposal would affect the average age of CPU staff. Under Lam, the CPU would also be transformed into a “policy and project co-ordination unit” that will assist in cross-bureau and inter-departmental co-ordination, rather than merely advising the CE, the CS and the FS. Lam has criticised the opaqueness of the present-day CPU and pledged to change the CPU from a “black box” to a “transparent box” which produces meaningful work for the public.[33]

By assisting the Government in developing a wide range of policies, as part of a revamped CPU with more co-ordinating powers and transparency, young CPU staff members could potentially supplement the advice provided to the Government by the CoY beyond traditional “youth” issues such as education.[34] However, Professor Lau Siu-kai, former head of the CPU and vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, expressed scepticism over the viability of this proposal as Lau believes that it will be difficult to find capable youth who can provide practical policy recommendations to the CPU.[35] Lau acknowledged that youth can provide new ideas to the Government by joining the CPU, although they may be dissatisfied if their contributions are not made open to the public.

Lam has admitted that she seldom sought policy research advice from the CPU during her tenure as CS. Thus there is a risk that recruiting young people to join the CPU may not lead to significant policy changes if their recommendations or opinions are not given much weight by the Government. The CPU would have to make clear exactly what kind of role these new young members would be playing in the formation of policy for this proposal to be effective. Additionally, if the 20 to 30 young staff members are seen as holding largely pro-establishment or pro-democracy views, critics may allege that the Government is only paying lip service to the idea of recruiting youth from different backgrounds.

Using online platforms for youth consultation

Besides recruiting young people to join ASBs or the CPU, there are other potential methods that the Government could use to improve engagement with young people during the planning and delivery of public policies. One user-friendly participation mechanism that may appeal to youth is an online platform. Although the HAB has already established the Public Affairs Forum website[36] in 2005 to canvass the views of the community on political affairs and public issues in Hong Kong, John Tsang’s manifesto included a proposal to build a “new platform (including e-platform) solely for young people to allow them to take part in political and policy discussions”.[37] Many Government departments have already set up Facebook pages, although public engagement with these pages is somewhat low.[38] It is not clear whether an e-platform could be made that is accessible to young people only.

Several foreign countries have attempted to use online platforms to engage with the public. In the United States, former President Barack Obama established the “We the People” online petition platform (https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/) and the White House pledged to respond to any petition with over 100,000 signatures. From 2011 to July 2016, the White House responded to 227 petitions.[39] A similar website exists in the United Kingdom (https://petition.parliament.uk/); petitions with over 100,000 signatures may be debated in the House of Commons, although in many cases no debates were arranged.[40] If the Government is interested in creating an e-platform of a similar nature to engage with youth and Internet users, it may be helpful to study the merits and experiences of these examples.

Conclusion

In January 2017, a study of local youth conducted by CUHK revealed that 63% of respondents distrusted the Government and 65.7% were very dissatisfied or not quite satisfied with its performance.[41] It is probable that youth dissatisfaction has contributed in part to social unrest and recent events such as the Occupy Central movement. Making ASBs more accommodating of young people’s views could be one way to include more young voices in the policymaking process and restore trust between youth and the Government.

With regard to proposals made by John Tsang and Carrie Lam to establish a youth quota for ASBs, there may be concerns that a shortage of qualified young candidates would compel the Government to appoint undeserving young members, which would violate the principle of appointment by merit. Conversely, if the youth ASB appointees or CPU recruits are not perceived as having a significant influence on policy, this may be seen as an insufficient measure to increase youth participation. Regardless of the methods ultimately employed by the Government to improve youth participation, it will be necessary to demonstrate that young people have a meaningful and substantive role in the policymaking process.

1 Alice Wu, A year after Occupy Central, are Hong Kong’s young people being heard? South China Morning Post, September 27, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1861349/year-after-occupy-central-are-hong-kongs-young-people-being
2 Elizabeth Cheung, Hong Kong youth feel powerless in politics, South China Morning Post, September 1, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/2012375/hong-kong-youth-feel-powerless-politics
3 Hong Kong Youth Development Index, Commission on Youth, October 24, 2016, http://youthpolicy.hk/ydi/
4 John Tsang, 2017 Chief Executive Candidate Election Platform, February 6, 2017, https://www.johntsang2017.hk/en/platform.html
5 Carrie Lam, Manifesto of Carrie Lam Chief Executive Election 2017, February 27, 2017, https://www.carrielam2017.hk/media/my/2017/01/Manifesto_e_v2.pdf
6 Woo Kwok-hing, 2017 Chief Executive Election Platform 2.0, February 17, 2017, https://woo-kwok-hing.com/assets/docs/platform-eng_print.pdf
7 Advisory and Statutory Bodies, Home Affairs Bureau, http://www.hab.gov.hk/en/policy_responsibilities/District_Community_and_Public_Relations/advisory.htm
8 Youth Development Policy and Initiatives, Panel on Home Affairs, July 17, 2015, http://www.legco.gov.hk/yr14-15/english/panels/ha/papers/ha20150717cb2-1890-2-e.pdf
9 Tung Chee Hwa, 2000 Chief Executive Policy Address, October 11, 2000, http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/200010/11/1011140.htm
10 Youth Development Policy and the Latest Progress of Youth Development Fund, Legislative Council panel on Home Affairs, June 14, 2016, http://www.legco.gov.hk/yr15-16/english/panels/ha/papers/ha20160614cb2-1680-1-e.pdf
11 Chan Shui-ching, A proposal for formulating a youth policy in Hong Kong for the 21st century, The University of Hong Kong, 2009, http://hub.hku.hk/handle/10722/144223
12 LCQ13: Appointing young people to advisory and statutory bodies, Info.gov.hk, January 27, 2010, http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201001/27/P201001270154.htm
13 Population by Age Group and Sex: Mid-2010, Census and Statistics Department http://www.censtatd.gov.hk/hkstat/sub/sp150.jsp?tableID=002&ID=0&productType=8
14 Population by Age Group and Sex: Mid-2016, Census and Statistics Department, http://www.censtatd.gov.hk/hkstat/sub/sp150.jsp?tableID=002&ID=0&productType=8
15 Advisory and Statutory Bodies, Home Affairs Bureau, http://www.hab.gov.hk/en/policy_responsibilities/District_Community_and_Public_Relations/advisory.htm
16 Review of the Role and Functions of Public Sector Advisory and Statutory Bodies, Home Affairs Bureau, April 2003, http://www.hab.gov.hk/file_manager/en/documents/whats_new/advisory_and_statutory_bodies/ASBmempaper.pdf
17 Advisory and Statutory Bodies, Home Affairs Bureau, http://www.hab.gov.hk/en/policy_responsibilities/District_Community_and_Public_Relations/advisory.htm
18 Women’s Commission welcomes Government’s move to raise gender benchmark target for participation in advisory and statutory bodies, Women’s Commission, April 28, 2010, http://www.women.gov.hk/mono/en/library/pr_100428.htm
19 Raymond Cheng, Hong Kong group wants more women to be part of consultation bodies, South China Morning Post, March 7, 2017, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/education-community/article/2076800/hong-kong-group-wants-more-women-be-part
20 Juliana Bidadanure, Better Procedures for Fairer Outcomes: Youth Quotas in Parliaments, Intergenerational Justice Review, 2015, http://www.igjr.org/ojs/index.php/igjr/article/view/428/289
21 LCQ21: Measure to promote youth development, Info.gov.hk, December 7, 2016, http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201612/07/P2016120700427.htm
22 Youth in Hong Kong: A Statistical Profile 2015, Commission on Youth, http://www.coy.gov.hk/filemanager/template/common/images/archive/research/YSP_2015_SP_English_Executive_Summary.pdf
23 Definition of Youth, United Nations, http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/documents/youth/fact-sheets/youth-definition.pdf
24 The United Nations and The Advancement of Women 1945–1996, United Nations, 1996, http://www.legco.gov.hk/yr02-03/english/panels/ha/papers/ha0314cb2-1636-1e.pdf
25 Equality: Equality in political participation and decision-making (E/CN.6/1990/2); Peace: Equal participation in all efforts to promote international cooperation, peace and disarmament (E.CN.6/1992/10); Women in Politics and Decision-making in the Late Twentieth Century (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.91.IV.3).
26 Women’s Commission welcomes Government’s move to raise gender benchmark target for participation in advisory and statutory bodies, Women’s Commission, April 28, 2010, http://www.women.gov.hk/mono/en/library/pr_100428.htm
27 Fact Sheet: Youth Participation, United Nations, https://social.un.org/youthyear/docs/Fact%20Sheet%20-%20Youth%20Participation.pdf
28 LCQ13: Appointing young people to advisory and statutory bodies, Info.gov.hk, January 27, 2010, http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201001/27/P201001270154.htm
29 Juliana Bidadanure, Better Procedures for Fairer Outcomes: Youth Quotas in Parliaments, Intergenerational Justice Review, 2015, http://www.igjr.org/ojs/index.php/igjr/article/view/428/289
30 Rosanna Wong Yick-ming, Youth Participation in Hong Kong: Ensuring Sustainability, Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, 2003, http://www.coy.gov.hk/filemanager/template/common/images/research/2003_youth/Paper_DrRWong.pdf
31 Editorial: Youths sitting on advisory bodies, Ming Pao Daily, March 1, 2017, http://news.mingpao.com/pns/dailynews/web_tc/article/20170301/s00017/1488305181610
32 Carrie Lam, Manifesto of Carrie Lam Chief Executive Election 2017, February 27, 2017, https://www.carrielam2017.hk/media/my/2017/01/Manifesto_e_v2.pdf
33 Jeffie Lam, Chief executive contender Carrie Lam sets sights on ‘black box’ think tank, demanding action and transparency, South China Morning Post, February 28, 2017, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/2074680/hong-kong-ce-contender-carrie-lam-sets-her-sights-black-box
34 On the other hand, the Government could also accomplish this objective by expanding the mandate and scope of the CoY’s work. It is not clear if this was a possibility that was considered by Carrie Lam.
35 陳嘉洛, 林鄭批中策組黑箱 劉兆佳暗寸唔熟運作:搞掂班局長先講, HK01, March 8, 2017, https://www.hk01.com/sns/article/76340?utm_content=buffer65365&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=facebook+hk01&utm_campaign=buffer
36 About Us, Public Affairs Forum, https://www.forum.gov.hk/index.php/en/aboutusen?theme=
37 John Tsang, 2017 Chief Executive Candidate Election Platform, February 6, 2017, https://www.johntsang2017.hk/en/platform.html
38 A slap in the Facebook: How can governments reach the netizens effectively? Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, February 24, 2017, http://www.bauhinia.org/index.php/zh-HK/analyses/563
39 Paul Hitlin, ‘We the People’: Five Years of Online Petitions, Pew Research Centre, December 28, 2016, http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/28/we-the-people-five-years-of-online-petitions/
40 Emma Howard, E-petitions can be very effective, but don’t put them in the hands of government, The Guardian, February 24, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/24/e-petitions-often-worse-than-useless
41 Peace Chiu, Young Hongkongers do not trust the government, but few are radical, study shows, South China Morning Post, January 3, 2017, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/2058995/young-hongkongers-do-not-trust-government-few-are-radical