“It takes a village.” For Yun Wing Sung, Co-founder of the Hong Kong charity Project Change, the African proverb encapsulates the efforts that go into rehabilitating youths arrested for their alleged involvement in the Anti-Extradition Bill movement that swept Hong Kong in 2019.
Sung, who was Chairman of the Economics Department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for 17 years and currently serves as Adjunct Professor, founded Project Change in 2020 along with two other academics, including his wife, Dr Pauline Po-lin Sung-Chan. The cause: to help these young people – a majority of whom did not have a previous criminal record – rebuild their lives.
“Of the 10,000 people arrested, over 4,000 were students – 2,200 were enrolled in tertiary educational institutions while the rest were still in high school,” said Sung. “It has been extremely detrimental to their careers, their families and the Hong Kong community. Regardless of where we stand politically or ideologically, the wellbeing of our future generations ought to be our priority.”
In the months leading up to the launch, the team visited various NGOs and met with Government officials to assess service gaps, as most welfare agencies offered programmes targeted at “conventional” arrestees with a different profile. In June 2020, Project Change was established as a registered apolitical organization helping individuals under 25 arrested during the social unrest. Since then, it has managed over 150 cases.
Besides facing a long judiciary process, the youths also must deal with issues such as being denied jobs or places in educational institutions rejection from family and friends, as well as mental and physical health issues. Without intervention, this could have a lasting impact on their lives, as well as affecting sociopolitical stability and economic productivity, said Sung.
While social stigma and discrimination persist, perspectives are slowly changing. Program Director John Mak said the organization has worked closely with a few Government departments, including the Social Welfare Department, the Correctional Services Department and the Hong Kong Police Force. “Chief Executive John Lee and Commissioner of Police Raymond Siu have both repeatedly stressed that those who have served their time, completed their legal responsibilities and are committed to being law-abiding citizens should be offered a second chance of reintegrating into society and given the opportunity to contribute. Their commitments have led to a change in how the community sees these young adults,” he explained.
Project Change’s rehabilitation programme is grounded in holistic therapy and education. It is supported by a network of professionals, including social workers, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, with counselling services provided for 1-2 years, comprising 50 one-hour sessions per year. These include individual face-to-face counselling, e-counselling and projects. Family-centred therapy is also provided to encourage parents and relatives to play a positive role in the development of these youths. Enrollment is voluntary and free of cost, with donors and supporters taking care of expenses.
In 2021, Project Change introduced a reintegration programme to help youths released from incarceration to get jobs and seek readmission to universities. Sung said Government-funded universities have been receptive to the cause, with awareness increasing every day, especially in the education sector. Finding employment, though, can sometimes be a challenge due to the perceived reputational risk of hiring such individuals.
“When we first started, there were two challenges,” said Mak. “One was the general lack of awareness in society about these youths – I remember one company being surprised that they number in the thousands. The second problem, of course, was the social stigma. Today, companies are becoming more amenable to the idea, particularly in sectors such as engineering, banking and education.”
Opportunities for short-term internships are seen as beneficial, especially for those awaiting trial, as it allows them to contribute to society. It can also have a positive effect on the sentencing handed down by the court.
“With Hong Kong facing a talent crunch, the message we have been repeating since Chief Executive John Lee’s Policy Address last October is that if these youths have a positive outlook and want to turn their lives around, we should offer them an opportunity,” said Mak. “We want to give them a platform to contribute to the local economy, especially as Hong Kong is on the path to economic revival. Ideally, they should be able to go on to lead normal lives and get jobs without us having to highlight the problems they have faced. That would be the optimal result.”
Project Change has been ramping up its campaign to spread the word among companies across various industries and business chambers, including the HKGCC, where the team will give a presentation this month. The charity also holds community events like film screenings to help youths think big, build empathy and socialize, while Sung often invites small groups to fellowship dinners. Mak described a fundraising concert held in September last year, where Government officials, business leaders and LegCo members mingled with the youths. “It was a cohesive show of cross-sector support,” said Mak. “And that is our message: society ought to work together in a spirit of reconciliation.”
For these young people to integrate successfully into society, they need to know that the community is on their side, said Sung. “It takes everyone, from business leaders and educators to families and friends, to help them overcome hardships and rebuild their lives. We must see them not as a burden but as potential talent. This togetherness should be the way forward for Hong Kong.”