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A touch of class from Alex Lo on Saturday. Mr Lo has appointed himself the posthumous spokesman of the Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky, a literary star who died in 1881. Mr Lo’s latest effort started like this: “Study and politics don’t mix. That’s why Dostoyevsky recommends in Crime and Punishment that young university students should focus on their school work before trying to change the world”.

This makes a nice change from the usual run of local quote sources, but is open to several objections. There is some danger in supposing that anything written in a novel is intended to be a general statement of the author’s opinion. Novels are fiction. We should also note that being a great author is frequently compatible with holding ludicrous opinions on everyday matters, or indeed on others. Tolstoy was a religious nut. Conan Doyle believed in fairies. So it goes.

We must note also that while this may have been Dostoyevsky’s opinion he did not follow it very closely himself. He was still in his 20s when he was arrested for membership of a secret literary circle. What happens next illustrates why Dostoyevsky’s opinion on the matter should perhaps be taken in its historical context: along with several other members he was sentenced to death. The execution by firing squad was interrupted by the arrival of a reprieve from the Tsar, but it was replaced with ten years in Siberia. Dostoyevsky lived in a place and time when trying to change the world was a dangerous game. It involved confronting a despotic regime with a large secret police force. Penalties for subversive activities included death, and in response the subversive activities tended to drift into assassination plots. No other means of political expression were available. Clearly under the circumstances Dostoyevsky’s advice, if that was what he intended, was good. Politics was a game for adults, and perhaps not even for them. No doubt he wished he had followed his own advice. But that hardly justifies us in supposing that this principle should apply in Hong Kong, where the general population is entitled and expected to participate in public life and is often urged to do so. Dostoyevsky’s father was murdered by his own serfs. Times have changed.

The idea that study and protest do not mix has other supporters. Indeed shorn of its exotic association with unreadable novels it is a banal and boring observation which has been thrown at many students. In 1968, when a lot of protesting was going on and my appearance indicated fairly strongly, and accurately, that I was some kind of student, I was occasionally accosted in the street by complete strangers who wished to make the same point. So the implications of the idea were from time to time considered by many of us.

I noted that the “study and protest do not mix” line did not stem from a desire to see students spend their time in productive study, because other activities which also tempted us from our books never provoked the same response. Many of us, for example, drank in pubs. A few pubs refused to serve students, or refused to serve people with my kind of hair, but in none of them were we ever upbraided for neglecting our studies to slake our thirst. At the educational antique where I did my first degree the timetable was designed with a hole in it in the afternoon so that students were not impeded from the pursuit of a healthy body in which to cherish their healthy minds. This meant that you could, and I did, spend every afternoon rowing for six days a week. There was a rule – no doubt a religious relic – against rowing on Sundays. But on Sunday you could still sail in the winter and punt in the summer. So I spent a lot of time conspicuously floating up and down various rivers, and the odd canal. At no time did any of the numerous observers looking on from banks or bridges complain that we were floating when we should have been studying.

Indeed it seemed that objections to student politics were highly selective. People only objected to protests that they disagreed with. There were no complaints about students participating in elections on the teams of one of the major parties, for example. People who objected to demonstrations in favour of X were against X. Those who objected to protests against Y were in favour of Y. Sure enough, a complete stranger to Mr Lo’s past writings would discover, having got past Dostoyevsky to the local stuff, that he is still complaining about Occupy Central. And would, I fear, not be surprised.

Still, let us try to cheer him up on one point, which is his concern that “some [young people] end up joining movements or doing things they regret later or which mark them for life.” Well of course people sometimes change their minds as they get older, usually in a more conservative direction. There are numerous versions of a quotation, usually attributed to Clemenceau, to the effect that any man who is going to amount to anything is an anarchist at the age of 20 and a conservative at the age of 40. It must also be true that many young people do things which they regret later, usually I suspect on the amorous rather than the political front. More common, I think, is the discovery that living a full adult life does not leave much time for the changing of the world, and casting the occasional ballot is enough to discharge one’s obligations in that direction. My career as a student troublemaker lasted about 10 years (I started while still at school) from 1962 (Cuba missile crisis) to 1972 (arcane dispute about staffing in the English Department at the University of Lancaster). The intervening period was mostly occupied by the Vietnam War, though I remember Union Secretaries being instructed to write to all sorts of people – Idi Amin … Fidel Castro … Nicolae Ceausescu – about a wide variety of topics. These letters never seemed to produce replies. People may have changed their minds about some of the major issues. But I do not think they now look back and regard their positions as shameful. The Cuba crisis has had a goodish press lately, but it was not repeated, a fact which tells you something. The Vietnam War would not have ended differently if it had been warmly supported in the UK, or for that matter if the UK had joined in. If you are going to lose there is something to be said for losing quickly.

But after all politics is a rather small part of life. Anyone who is agonised by the opinions of his youth can perhaps be said to need a sense of proportion. Joining movements is more of a potential problem. I did wonder about people who joined the Communist Party while they were students, because there was something cultish about it. You weren’t exactly brainwashed but it became such a major part of your life that it was hard to leave. I subscribed for a while to a subversive (not Communist) publication whose offices were regularly burgled. Nothing valuable was taken; the management supposed that it was just the Special Branch updating its list of subscribers. I know at least one person who suspected he was denied a job on the government payroll because he was on the resulting black list, but you never know and they don’t tell you. Anyway all of the former playmates with whom I am still in touch managed to have normal careers and seem to look back without anger on their student activist phase. Two former sparring partners are still enthusiastic disciples of Trotsky, or one of that crowd, but I never got that far left.

Now defenders of Mr Lo may well object at this point that in some ways my experience is as alien from contemporary Hong Kong as Dostoyevsky’s. Nobody is going to face a firing squad here. But in my English youth there was no such thing as a certificate of no criminal conviction (there is now, but it’s aimed as sex offenders, not rabble rousers) and there was no mechanism for systematically victimising critics of the government. Indeed two of my more conspicuous rebellious contemporaries (Peter Hain and Jack Straw) eventually became part of a Labour Government. I never met Mr Hain. I saw quite a lot of Mr Straw, who inspired the prophetic suspicion that he might be for sale. Now as far as the usual criminal record nightmare is concerned (entry to the United States and other desirable destinations) I believe it is usual for offences of a political nature to be overlooked. The question of future government employment is a different matter. It does seem increasingly true that aspirants to official employment are being subjected to some kind of test. It transpired last week that the new chairman of the Council of the University of Science of Technology is an enthusiastic supporter of Lufsig. Some people may well have thought by now that it would be surprising if he wasn’t.

I do not think this has percolated down to more humble levels yet, so that yesterday’s student leaders find tomorrow’s applications for starter posts in the civil serviceĀ  are peremptorily rejected. But if that is what Mr Lo is afraid of he should say so. Certainly it calls for a response. But whether that response should be to urge students to keep their heads down is another matter. I would not dispute that students tend to be impatient, overconfident and overly ambitious in their long-term hopes. I expect I was too. But students are entitled to agitate about the long term, because in the long term they will be here and we won’t.

 

 

 

 

 

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