Allow jail released to contribute to society: Hong Kong protesters

Protesters jailed over Hong Kong’s anti-government demonstrations in 2019 should be viewed as assets to help halt the brain drain and be given support to rehabilitate them, a group set up to assist them has said.

Project Change, a programme established up by a group of 16 academics and professionals, suggested on Monday the Correctional Services Department expand resources for jailed protesters who were keen to continue with their studies.

The group, speaking in advance of Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s first policy address, highlighted that some of those incarcerated might not have resorted to violence at protests.

“If you want to change the game, you have to heal the wound,” said Sung Yun-wing, treasurer of the group.

Without such a mindset, “you can’t tell a good Hong Kong story,” he added, borrowing a slogan used by the government in a bid to revitalise the city in the wake of the impact of Covid-19 and the 2019 anti-government protests.

Project Change said the government should take the lead and encourage professional bodies not to automatically disqualify convicted members or young people who wanted to join the groups.

A total of 10,279 people had been arrested by August in connection with the political turmoil that gripped the city, police said.

Project Change, founded in 2020, has offered legal support, life-planning advice and counselling services to 106 youngsters, referred to the organisation by lawyers, police or through word of mouth.

Sung, an adjunct economics professor at Chinese University, argued that giving jailed youngsters a second chance would be in line with the keynote speech given by Chinese President Xi Jinping when he visited the city in July.

Xi highlighted the importance of helping the city’s youth to thrive, and Sung said that would include those who had suffered the consequences of their actions.

Lee will unveil his first policy address on October 19. The former security official has so far avoided talk of reconciliation, but his policy address is expected touch on youth development and the need to retain the city’s talent.

Sung said many young people serving jail terms for their role in the protests had a good academic track record before conviction.

But he added they faced immense constraints on continuation of their studies when they were behind bars.

For example, he said, Metropolitan University was the only option available for those who would like to undertake degree studies, despite there being eight other publicly funded universities.

John Mak Hiu-fai, the group’s reintegration programme director, said more young prisoners wanted to sit the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams, the city’s university entry qualification, than in the past.

He added that anecdotal evidence had led him to conclude that some detention centres had run out of space to expand classes.

University student Ah Hei*, who was jailed for several months on a charge of unlawful assembly, said courses offered in prison tended to be technical rather than academic, even though some of the activists he was behind bars with had a bachelor’s degree or higher, some specialising in accounting and finance.

Mak said he would respect the authorities’ decision on how the situation could be improved.

“But the most important thing is it has to be resolved,” he said.

Sung explained that some professional bodies imposed sanctions on members who had a criminal conviction and, in serious cases, had terminated their registrations.

But he said the government should encourage them to examine individual cases with care before they came to a conclusion, especially when violence was not involved.

Sung added that some people had left Hong Kong after their release from prison.

He reminded the government that some of them were professionals who had gone through years of training and had the potential to make a valuable contribution to the city.

“It’s a great loss to them and to society,” Sung said.

He also appealed to the government to set a deadline for when it would stop bringing charges related to the disturbances and allow the city to move on.

Ah Hei said he hoped to remain in Hong Kong after his prison sentence was over. But he added it “all depends on whether the government has come up with policies to make my life easier”.

A Correctional Services Department spokesman said it had helped non-Metropolitan University students to continue with their learning and sit exams, where possible and was seeking to sign an agreement with a university to step up support.

The spokesman added an average of 290 prisoners annually took courses at Metropolitan University, formerly the Open University of Hong Kong.

He said the department also provided half-day secondary school education for an average of 170 young people aged under 21 every year.

Officials said a total of 28 people had sat the DSE exams over the past three years.