By Emily Feng.
Today, an estimated 13,000 Hong Kong students skipped classes and instead jammed themselves into the main quad of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. With the support of nearly 400 scholars, the university students began a five day-long boycott of classes to protest what they see as heavy handed attempts by Beijing to control Hong Kong’s internal politics.
At the heart of the protests is a promise by made the mainland Chinese government that by 2017 Hong Kong citizens will be able to directly vote in elections for the island’s highest political office, the chief executive. However, despite an informal “referendum” during which the citizen group Occupy Central with Love and Peace collected nearly 800,000 votes for various electoral proposals, Beijing went ahead and declared that all chief executive candidates must first be chosen by a nominating committee. The furor incited by the announcement has sustained the Occupy Central movement, which is the largest and most sustained domestic resistance China has faced since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
I have followed the boycott with equal measures of awe, excitement, and despair.
I watched with excitement as students my age gathered in the thousands, impassioned by their political convictions. Much of the energy pushing the protests forward has come from students; nearly 82% of Hong Kongers between the ages of 21 to 29 are dissatisfied with how the Chinese government has handled its relationship with Hong Kong, compared to an overall dissatisfaction rate of 52%. The original Occupy Central with Love and Peace “referendum” was organized in conjunction with a university polling group.
This kind of determined political activism is entirely at odds with what adults have been saying about how “kids these days” are behaving. Older pundits have long bemoaned the decline of political participation among supposedly vain and materialistic twenty somethings, and their cynicism has spawned a host of monikers for this generational social decline. The US has its Millennials, China has its “八零后” (born after 1980s), a Chinese spin on the “Generation Y” phenomenon, and Taiwan has its “strawberry generation.”
Yet Hong Kong students have bucked this trend, arguably since 1989. A well-timed documentary chronicled the 2012 national curriculum protests led by Hong Kong high school students, who targeted an education plan backed by Beijing to insert a “moral and national education” component in Hong Kong’s secondary school curriculum. The protests drew tens of thousands of participants and Beijing eventually capitulated, abandoning plans to instate the new curriculum. Scholarism, an activist group of high school students which spearheaded the 2012 protests, remains active in the current protests and helped distribute leaflets outside Monday’s boycott.
I watched with awe over the summer as Occupy Central snowballed, but I also watched with more than a little of despair as I contrasted the youthful idealism of today’s student boycotters with the more realistically grim prospects of success.
Pro-democracy activists in greater China have long held out the hope that an independent Hong Kong would set a precedent for other independently-minded regions, specifically Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. In an interview with the New York Times, mainland Chinese activist Hu Jia (who has been under house arrest since February), touched upon why Occupy Central is so important: “In the territory controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, only Hong Kong has some space for free speech, some judicial independence, so it is a mirror for people on the mainland…The outcome of this battle for democracy will also determine future battles for democracy for all of China.”
The “one country, two systems” agreement reached by Beijing when Hong Kong was transferred from British rule was supposed to help protect the kind of financial, political, and cultural autonomy Hong Kong had historically enjoyed, the kind of autonomy that makes it possible to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre each year even while the same activities have gotten mainland dissidents jailed. Yet ironically, it is because of the very real possibility that Hong Kong could force Beijing’s hand for the second time that Hong Kong will never be allowed to win on this issue and the domino effect pro-democracy activists hope for will never happen.
Activists are calling these protests the first awakenings of a “new era of civil disobedience.” I certainly hope that is the case. It would be a fitting era for an island which is one of the bright spots of creativity and political participation in greater China. But great civil disobedience may be matched by ever-increasing interference from Beijing.