A Conversation with Young Visionary Steven Cheung

Whoever has not heard of the prolific 22-year old Steven Cheung has been living under a rock. This rising young politician has shown that not only is it possible to bring about grassroots change, but that you can make a difference in the public realm without the traditional help of “old boys’ networks”.

By Yinsey Wang  

His political contributions have garnered him recognition as Young Mayor of the Olympic Village as well as the opportunity to carry the Olympic Torch for Britain. Outspoken and opinionated, it is undeniable that his activities are vast and impressive, and his vision is limitless and engaging. Nee Hao puts the witty, passionate Cheung in the hot seat.

What motivated you to pursue a political career?

Haha, this is a long-winded question. Basically, I came to UK when I was 12 years old. I studied in the worst school in the country and had to put up with racism. I thought that I needed to change the situation and set up a school council. Although such organisations mainly exist in universities rather than schools, I felt that we needed to create a bridge between teachers and students. From then on, if you were a student and needed to solve a problem (such as if you got bullied or beaten up), there was a place where understanding could be created through the breaking down of barriers. The local mayor even supported us and we felt empowered. We emphasised the importance of understanding different cultures and organised events like food festivals.


Impressed by my efforts, I was asked to become an advisor to the local mayor. That is how I stepped into politics. When I was 18 years old, I acted as an advisor for Gordon Brown and sat on the Youth Advisory Board. We published reports but I was frustrated with what I saw as a simple press release exercise on behalf of the government; it was not something that would generate long-term, concrete and sustainable results. We felt that the government was not taking young people seriously enough, and hence I decided to run for the European Parliament when I was 19 years of age. My philosophy is if you want something done, go do it yourself instead of complaining.

In my gap year, I got a job at a bank. After working there for a week, it went bankrupt. The bank was – you guessed it – Lehman Brothers. Then, I got a job at a radio station. There were lots of problems that I discovered, for example, there was no real voice for the Chinese community. I felt that if a community has a problem, we should try to solve it together. Ever since, I’ve been involved in lots of projects.


So, where do you feel you’ve made the most impact? 

I think I’ve made an impact in many areas. For example, I do a lot of charity work and work with government. As Youth Advisor, I’ve aimed to pull young people out of unemployment through participation in local council and local government.

What do you think needs to be done? 

Most of all, I think to influence policy changes, we need to target grass roots initiatives – policymakers actually do not know enough about problems faced by young people. We need the right people to ask the right questions. For example, how do we change serious problems, why do we need to change these, and how do we stand up?

There are challenges still ahead. Sometimes people are receptive, and sometimes not so much. For example, we need to continue pressing the work permit issue. We have problems for Chinese students who are struggling with the fact there is no longer a post-study work visa on offer. Also, we have the issue of Chinese chefs not accessing employment at restaurants due to immigration restrictions. We also have Chinese businesses that have been accepted in the EU but are unable to enter the UK market. If we’re currently in the recession, and half of the country is made of SMEs, I think we really need to solve these problems. I think that the government has really just changed such policies with their short term interests in mind: to retain power. They are seriously damaging the long-term interest of Britain. As British Chinese, we need to stand up for our community and our nation. This generation is not as fortunate as the previous one. What is going to happen to our country? Young people need to take ownership in politics and over our country’s future. Besides, it’s not just today’s people who will be affected, future generations are relying on the legacy that we set for them.

And what’s next for Britain?

We used to be one of the greatest industrial powers in the world. We have creative industries, for example in music and film. We need to move on and not just rely on financial sector! Look what has happened – one big bubble in 2008. This is not the way forward. In spite of globalisation, we need to play a greater part in the world. Think of the possibilities open to British companies, we’ve seen the presence of Cathay Pacific and HSBC making strides in the international scene.

As some may argue, the EU did not quite work. For example, we need to do more work with China. However, look at what the UK is doing, they are literally giving away visas for individuals that can pay millions of pounds. However instead of just doing this, we need to look at how we can share technologies and share a global market. We need to look at what we can deliver to the world market, rather than just the UK. More advice is needed by SMEs that form the brunt of our economy.


You travelled to Canada for MY SUMMIT 2010. What do you think about your experience there and here? 

I suppose Chinese have been there longer in North America than in the UK. Many of the Chinese coming to London are actually not citizens of this country; they might be here for a few years, find employment and then leave. I think what we are dealing with is a very different demographic structure. Canada is far more pro-immigration than the UK. I think this generation needs to sort out this mess. We need to discover what works for us. We have had influxes of Chinese who come to the UK that meet their loved ones, who initially didn’t expect to stay. On the other hand, we have numbers of second-generation of Chinese known as “bananas” that feel British on the inside. How to navigate these distinctions and create a sense of belonging is next on the agenda.

In contrast to Canada’s stance on multiculturalism, it did not help the UK in regards to foreign migrants. I would say that with the Chinese community, some have and some haven’t integrated well with the mainstream British society. However, we have many Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani people that have been here for 10 years or more who still cannot speak English.

What was it like representing Britain during the Olympics? What was it like when acting as a torchbearer and being appointed a mayor of the Olympic Village?

Linking back to multiculturalism, I think that it is great that the government has recognised me to represent Britain. I am truly proud to be British Chinese. To be a torchbearer is recognition, not only for the work that I do, of the entire British Chinese community. As a young mayor, I have seen the hard work undertaken in the past 7-8 years in helping to bid for the Olympics. It was an honour to help shape what the park would look like and provide advice in general.

Although we faced the scandal with the G4S and issues regarding empty seats, I think that at end of the Olympics, people were very proud. I felt immensely proud to represent Britain and my community. I met 10 presidents, 8 prime ministers, 5 kings and 2 queens during this time!

In terms of benefits, we managed to gain lots of advertising revenue and free publicity for London. For example, we had 20,000 reporters from across the world reporting on us! We need to see the legacy of the Olympics itself; there will be homes and art facilities built for generations to use. Not only that, we have inspired generations and changed the impression of London. We have put on one of the greatest events of the planet.

What do you think about Tory MP Aidan Burley’s comments that the Olympics ceremony constituted “socialist propaganda”, as well as the allegations by certain critics against Ye Shiwen? 

The first issue is simple to deal with. Cameron said these comments were idiotic. Our prime minister, the leader of the Tories, made it clear. Enough said.

As for Ye Shiwen, I defended her on ITV and the BBC World Service. If it was Michael Phelps that broke a record like this, no one would be concerned about it. She won the world championship, it’s clear she has the skills to represent China and astound the world. Yes, China has a history of doping in the past, but this has changed. The allegations against Ye Shiwen demonstrate a case of sour grapes.

Which politician or thinker has been the most influential on you? 

I’m an admirer of grassroots politics. This is as a lot of politicians are part of an establishment. For example, in the UK, we have the stereotypical politician coming out of Oxford and Cambridge.

My opinion: politics is about the people. I want to represent the working class and get the country moving with plans. Ask yourself whether your politician is furthering their political careers or is s/he better for our generation? What have they done in government and have we rewarded or punished them accordingly? It is important that every one who can register and vote should make use of those rights. Although we do not see our MPs all the time, they are using tax payer’s money to run the country!

In terms of a particular politician or thinker, I admire traits of many. Although I admire Barack Obama, altogether, he is still a posh boy. He says he represents the people, but after all, he has powerful and rich friends. I question whether he is really the best figurehead to represent the people down below. I would also like to mention my admiration for Winston Churchill, Nelson Mendela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

What is a serious issue that you want to tackle?

Poverty is the pressing issue of our generation. And war. We are fortunate enough to open our taps and find clean water, and this is entirely different for those living in poverty. We need to change the quality of society, and address the wealth gap. I hope to engage in some international aid work, and see what sort of technology can help underprivileged people. The issues are complex and there are many different reasons why we are in this mess, for example, cross-border embargoes and corruption.

I mean, why pour money into a region when change doesn’t happen? We need to address what has gone wrong. Before you dump in money, we need to address what needs to be tackled. A lot of the time and aid goes into meeting administration costs rather than to the people we’re supposed to be helping. We need to influence and empower those people because it’s up to them to change their lives.

The British Council has been innovative in addressing problems. For example, it provides grants and/or loans to small farmers with conditions attached; they have to send a child to school. If farmers wish to have more money, they need to send their neighbour’s child to school. From a farmer’s perspective, to educate a child is an opportunity cost: why send my child to school if instead I can have an extra pair of hands to farm? These kinds of mentalities are being changed.

Where do you stand regarding the multiculturalism debate in Britain?

The Olympics has definitely shown the best of Britain. There is still a lot of work to be done in order to include every single community, or foster community relations. It is not an easy task, however. British society comes from lots of cultures; it is naïve to think we can just all get together and get along instantly. We continue to have racism and racial profiling. We can keep pointing fingers at others, but keep in mind that there will be three fingers pointing back at you. We’ve got to do something about it rather than complain. That is why I’m hoping to get elected in the future and address these issues.

What advice can you give to budding politicians that want to replicate your success?

Don’t forget the people who support you because they will hunt you down if you don’t deliver your promises! Don’t give up; it is not an easy career path. Think about what motivates you. Do not be a career politician. It is not a job. You’re influencing life itself. You are influencing thousands of millions of lives in the UK.

The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the author of the article or Nee Hao Magazine.

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