A quick review of the academic literature, governmental reports, and news reporting on young people in Hong Kong, especially “marginal youth,” turns up a great deal of “problem-oriented,” mostly positivistic work that seeks to quantify, describe, and suggest generally individualistic remedies for a seemingly ever-proliferating array of ills that plague young Hong Kongers, or suggest that young Hong Kongers are themselves the plague.

Reading this, one might be forgiven for thinking that Hong Kong is on the verge of being overrun with drug addicted, wild youth impervious to discipline, hostile to authority, as indolent and self-indulgent as they are potentially dangerous to themselves, their community, and the social stability of the city – that is if they weren’t so lazy or unmotivated.

I refer to this social figure as “Bad Youth.”  This deliberately general term is meant both to capture the diversity of negative imagery about young people and to get at an underlying, often unspoken sense in Hong Kong that youth as a type of personhood is inherently suspicious, unstable, lacking, and potentially dangerous.  How else can we explain the vast array of governmental and social service apparati devoted to managing, disciplining, regulating, and upgrading Hong Kong young people?

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Building a Bad Subject

Youth as a category of official and social identification and concern in Hong Kong covers a lot of ground, particularly in the ways it intersects with other categories of difference and subjectivity, namely class, racial/ethnic, gendered, and sexual.  I will discuss this in ethnographic detail in subsequent “Bad Youth,” posts, but for now I will focus on general observations that will frame later discussions.

“Youth,” as many scholars have demonstrated, is a constructed category, and a fairly recently created one at that.  Understanding this opens the door to questioning how and with what effects “youth” is constructed at a particular time and in a particular place.

To illustrate the insight that social categories can be thought differently, consider a notion of youth as inherently “good.”  Defining the “problem” in this way would then mean the “solution” is to understand how to liberate their inherent possibilities, reduce the limitations on their thinking and creativity, foster diverse ways of learning and experimentation.  That is not in general the thrust of Hong Kong’s education system, nor its governmental and social service programs.  This does not mean that youth are inherently good, only that the politics and history of a social category’s construction largely determines that ways in which that category is addressed.  Hong Kong young people are in general seen first as a problem to be managed and then an opportunity – mainly for low-paid, docile labor.

Tam Hua-lin at CUHK argues that contemporary pathologized notions of Hong Kong youth come out of the context of post-World War II Hong Kong, when youth as a particular category of person were first being seen by the colonial government as both a potential resource and threat, more the latter after the ’66 and ’67 riots.[i] This way of framing the “problem” of youth required direct government intervention through educational systems and the mobilization and co-option of social service entities in managing this newly identified source of limited opportunity and inchoate danger.

In no way do I mean to deny that many young people in Hong Kong struggle with a range of difficult issues and need help – although that help, I argue, would best come in the form of less tragic levels of wealth aggregation among a tiny elite, more real opportunities, and less overt stigmatization.  My main point here, however, is that the way in which youth are imagined institutionally and socially determines the scale, mode, and effects of official, educational, and social service work directed at controlling, disciplining, and improving them as an apriori lacking or dangerous thing.

It is important to differentiate between and at the same time make clear an underlying common ground between explicitly negative portrayals of, for example, lazy, narcissistic, and self-indulgent post-90’s youth and more sympathetic accounts by social workers and others.  A great number of social workers in Hong Kong do important, professional, and compassionate work on behalf of young people with real needs.  However, both, in different ways, perpetuate the notion of youth as a site of lack or potential danger.

In an interview recently, a long-time social worker who has conducted over 10 years of service work among young people in Tin Shui Wai, including overnight outreach, agreed that the ways in which social service organizations in Hong Kong represent young people contributes to an “othering” of youth as a pathological category of personhood.  He made the very important point, however, that emphasizing the problems of youth is necessary to get government funding, and for mobilizing public sympathy necessary to keep youth-related issues at the fore.  In order to do their necessary work, service organizations must limit their message and programs to fit with an established institutional context.

In other words, “bad youth” exists not as only as an inchoate set of imaginations.  It is formalized through the funding and other institutional arrangements of the Hong Kong government and their systemic relations with NGOs, as much as it forms the background logic for public opinion, which is the predicate for financial donations.  Social service professionals who work to address real needs must work within institutional and social contexts that require at the same time a pathologicization of young people, which often they themselves recognize.  It is a painful dilemma for many that I have talked to.

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Anxious discussions of young people and their multitude of problems – which are never merely their problems, are almost always framed as threats to society – its social harmony; its competitiveness; its “traditional” work ethic; its safety and security; its relations with the mainland; and the ever-popular “future competitiveness in a globalizing world” – make them a potentially dangerous internal “other.”

In other words identification, especially through the work of the social sciences in its relation to government and more broadly governance, is not merely a reaction to a naturally occurring social conditions or forms of human life; it is also an expansion of power and control through the creation of categories of person; problems to be resolved; and then the need for state intervention in to the most intimate arenas of human life – family, friends, romantic relationships and the like.

This goes beyond the power of being the ones to define the problems and solutions at hand, and gets at what Michel Foucault called biopower, meaning work through and on the personhood of citizens – work to build kinds of people through, as an example, notions of investment in persons themselves. A value-added model.  The productive process then is also a disciplinary one.

It is little wonder that approaches to dealing with Hong Kong youth arising, as Tam argues, from colonialism would be ones of regulation, discipline, respect for authority, uncomplaining work, and docility.  This intersects fairly neatly with the current political-economic instincts of Hong Kong’s elitist governmental-business regime.

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The actual lives of the many young people I’ve talked to in Tin Shui Wai, Yuenlong, and other parts of Hong Kong do not match well with simplistic governmental, NGO, media, and popular representations.  Most of the young people I talk with balance an understandable sense of anxiety about their future with an unwillingness to give up hope. Sometimes this is displayed in organized protest, sometimes in daily forms of passivity and disaffection, and most often in lives that defer thoughts of a future that they accurately understand to have few realistic opportunities for them.

Young people need real chances in life, not just programs that peripherally address endemic poverty, racial/ethnic and gendered discrimination, and spatial marginalization.

On behalf of the Hong Kong government, and in the spirit of what Didier Fassin calls “humanitarian reason,”[ii] you people are welcome.

[i] 2010. Hua-lin Tam. “”Delingquent Behavior as a Kind of Body Politics’ Against Adult Regulations – Young People’s Discourses in Hong Kong.” Children and Youth Services Review 33 878 – 888.

[ii] 2011. Fassin, Didier. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. UC Press.

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