Did Beijing send five Hong Kong civil servants to UN as an olive branch to city’s youth in hope of quelling protests?

Phila Siu

Five young Hong Kong civil servants have been recommended by Beijing to take up positions in the United Nations from next month, in a move seen as a softer approach by the central government to embrace the city’s youth and give them global exposure amid the ongoing social unrest.

The announcement on Monday marked the first time that mainland Chinese authorities have worked with Hong Kong officials to allow the city’s civil servants to join the UN Junior Professional Officer Programme, set up in 1963.

The group, selected from a range of agencies, will be seconded to work at the UN’s New York headquarters and offices in Geneva and Vienna for two years.

At a ceremony to announce the move, Beijing’s top diplomat in Hong Kong signalled a different approach to the protests, which are now into their seventh month. Xie Feng, commissioner of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs office, said that radical protesters were only in the minority and did not represent the entire younger generation in the city.

“Some young people have lost themselves by taking part in street violence and illegal activities, vandalising, setting fires and assaulting police or citizens, as well as desecrating the national flag and waving foreign ones or begging for outside intervention,” he added.

Xie Feng, Beijing’s top diplomat in Hong Kong, speaks at the ceremony. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

“We feel angry and disheartened at these incidents, but I still believe that the black-clad rioters are only a minority, and they do not represent the youth of Hong Kong.”

The unrest was sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no such agreement, including mainland China.

Protesters have insisted on five demands, including a judge-led independent inquiry into police conduct over the handling of protests, and amnesty to those arrested. But the government has stood firm.

News of the selection on Monday came after President Xi Jinping said in Macau last week that patriotism in the casino hub was the most important reason for the success of the “one country, two systems” principle. Xi was there to mark the 20th anniversary of Macau’s handover to Chinese administration.

Hong Kong has been rocked by more than six months of protest violence. Photo: Sam Tsang

The Chinese leader also praised Macau’s education system, saying that national identity had been inculcated in young people there.

In October, diplomat Xie launched a scathing attack on Hong Kong’s protest movement, describing the street violence as a “virus” deadlier than the one that had caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003.

More than 6,000 people have been arrested since June, and nearly 40 per cent of them are students.

Hong Kong’s young people have inherited from their seniors the fine tradition of loving both the country and their city

Xie Feng, commissioner of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs office

But on Monday, in a renewed show of faith in the city’s youth, Xie said that in the five Hong Kong civil servants selected for the UN programme, he saw the “fine qualities” that most in their class possessed.

“Hong Kong’s young people have inherited from their seniors the fine tradition of loving both the country and their city. Their Lion Rock spirit of fighting for their dreams represent hope for Hong Kong … to start again,” Xie added.

The term “Lion Rock spirit” comes from a popular 1970s television series and is commonly used to refer to the resilience and diligence of locals.

Some see Beijing’s approach as a move to win over the hearts of Hong Kong’s youngsters. The protest movement in the city is mostly led by young people. Photo: Dickson Lee

Xie said patriotism was a universal core value and that those who did not love their country would never earn the respect of others. He urged Hong Kong youth to defend the “one country, two systems” policy under which the city is granted a high degree of autonomy, and called on them to say no to separatism.

Xie’s comments came after a recent poll published by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute showed a record-high 78 per cent of 577 respondents identified as “Hongkongers”. Those who regarded themselves as “Chinese” hit a low of 21 per cent.

Why are the young people of Hong Kong angry and deeply unhappy?

Speaking at the same event, Hong Kong leader Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said her administration wanted young people to have a sense of national identity.

The five selected Hong Kong civil servants, by working in the UN, would be able to share the glory from China’s rising international status, she added.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam also spoke at the event. Photo: Handout

Political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu said Beijing had adopted this “soft sell” approach to win over the hearts of Hong Kong youth as it made strategic adjustments amid the months-long protests.

He said he expected this stance to continue but added that he doubted it would douse the flames of the unrest as those taking to the streets were not beneficiaries of such programmes.

The five are Wilson Lai, senior investigator from the Independent Commission Against Corruption; He Yuheng, an Observatory scientific officer; Francis Yuen, electronics engineer from the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department; Jo Chan, another engineer from the department; and Gabriel Pak, an administrative officer.

Margaret Chan, Hong Kong’s former director of health, served in the UN. Photo: AFP

Chan said Beijing had shown it valued the development of young people in Hong Kong by selecting them to the programme, while Lai said he hoped to bring back knowledge gained from the programme.

A source said there were no open applications among civil servants to apply to be picked by Beijing.

According to the UN website, the main objective of the JPO programme is to provide young professionals the chance for a hands-on experience in the field of multilateral international cooperation.

In 2003, Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, then Hong Kong’s director of health, quit her job to become the World Health Organisation’s director of protection of the human environment. Three years later, she was appointed to WHO director general and served until 2012.

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