• Engineering a new start for young Hongkongers convicted over 2019 protests

    SCMP, 16 June 2024

    Hong Kong Institute of Engineers says it wants to promote ‘reconciliation’ and give much-needed professionals a second chance

    Hong Kong’s professional body for engineers wants to promote “reconciliation” through a task force set up to help rehabilitate young members convicted for involvement in the 2019 protests.

    The Hong Kong Institute of Engineers (HKIE) spoke out after a pilot disciplinary hearing process gave a reprimand to an aspiring member of the profession who served jail time for his role in the unrest and struggled to find work after release from prison.

    Sing*, an aspiring engineer who had worked towards professional qualifications for several years, was among the 2,328 so far convicted for their roles in the 2019 anti-government protests triggered by a now-shelved extradition bill.

    “From the moment I was arrested, I had already prepared for the worst,” Sing, who declined to disclose details of his case to avoid identification, said.

    “I just hadn’t thought it would be so difficult to find a job after I finished serving my sentence.”

    He explained he had got to the advanced stages of job interviews after approaches from employment agencies and potential employers in the wake of his release from jail in 2022 – but was rejected after his conviction was revealed.

    Sing said he went to Project Change, an NGO set up in 2020 to help young people arrested over the civil disturbances, after he failed to land a job despite six months of effort and secured a new post in weeks with the scheme’s help.

    He also learned that his IKIE membership could be restored if he was prepared to go through a disciplinary tribunal at the self-regulating professional body.

    “That’s when I slowly began to see hope that I could get my life back on track,” Sing said.

    He became the first case for a task force created by the HKIE governing council in January 2023 to provide support to members aged under 35 who had acquired convictions as a result of the unrest.

    An estimated 2 million people marched through Hong Kong on June 16, 2019, against the proposed extradition bill, which was followed by months of unrest that included violent clashes with police.

    Tang Whai-tak, the chairman of the HKIE task force, said its work was like being the “training wheels on a bicycle”, with the aim that the affected members would be able to manage on their own after suitable support.

    The task force, which operates alongside existing disciplinary procedures, helps young people get back their HKIE membership, access learning opportunities and make reapplications for mainland Chinese travel permits.

    The task force, which includes lawmaker Gary Zhang Xinyu and four other senior engineers, can also make pleas in mitigation for those who face the disciplinary hearing.

    Tang said the fear and despair of young engineers faced with the loss of their professional qualifications and standing was “beyond imagination”.

    “[Someone asked:] ‘Do I need to change the name on my birth certificate by engaging a lawyer and taking an oath?’,” he added.

    “My heart ached when I heard about it – how a good person got to the point of considering changing his name for no reason. What a hopeless and despairing moment that was.”

    About 10 inmates set to be released from prison in the next two years have an engineering background, with the task force to organise a talk at Pik Uk Prison in the New Territories to outline what it can offer.

    Barry Lee Chi-hong, the HKIE president, said the number of potential beneficiaries of the organisation’s scheme might be small, but it was a gesture that spoke volumes as the body was among the first professional groups to offer support for rehabilitation.

    “The message we want to send is that we hope for great reconciliation,” Lee said. “Just because someone took a wrong step does not mean it will affect their entire life.

    “If they have regrets, we will welcome them back to our big engineering family.”

    Sing completed his disciplinary hearing and was given a reprimand, which was recorded on the HKIE register.

    But he is now back on track to gain the professional qualification that will allow him to rise through the ranks without his career being jeopardised by his conviction.

    Sing is among three HKIE members who have gone through a disciplinary hearing and held onto their memberships.

    Aaron Bok Kwok-ming, a former HKIE president who was instrumental in the formation of the task force, said it made independent judgments based on the merits, without discussion with outside forces.

    “The present atmosphere in society … is to engage in economic development and construction, adding more land and housing, building a technopolis [in San Tin],” Bok said.

    “Our own judgment is that we will need a large number of people with engineering talent in the future.

    “Society has spent a lot of money and resources on the education of these trainees or licensed engineers. We should try our best to help get them back.”

    Project Change has helped about 170 young people arrested in the 2019 unrest and handled dozens of inquiries about career advice.

    John Mak Hiu-fai, the NGO’s reintegration programme director, said the group had approached at least 30 industry bodies in the past two years and the HKIE’s pioneering effort was a confidence booster for young people unsure about society’s acceptance of their past.

    “The police force and the Correctional Services Department have always attached great importance to rehabilitation and they have rendered assistance [in Sing’s case], which reflects the government’s desire to make good use of talent, which is in line with our ideals,” Mak said.

    “Hopefully they can talk about it more often, so more people can learn about it, more sectors will provide more support, and more young people can be engaged.”

    Professor Sung Yun-wing, Project Change’s founder, added it was hoped that the government could take the lead in not rejecting young job candidates because of their links to the 2019 unrest.

    “Our ultimate goal is not for Project Change to last forever,” Sung said. “What we want to do most is to call it a day – that is when our civil society and the Hong Kong government, with their policies and mechanisms, reach a point where they can handle the anti-extradition bill incidents relatively smoothly.”

    Sing said, that as cases connected to the 2019 unrest were still going through the courts, it would take years for Sung’s dream to come true.

    But he added that programmes such as the HKIE one should encourage other professionals behind bars to still have hope for their futures on release.

    “I hope to let them know that after they finish serving their sentence, they actually have a hope of returning to the engineering profession,” Sing said.

    “If you do your best, someone will give you a chance.”

    *Name changed at interviewee’s request