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Highly Educated Young People at Core of Hong Kong Protests

Students and university-educated young people are playing central roles in the protests in Hong Kong.

August 16, 2019
 
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Young, university-educated people are at the center of the unfolding struggle in Hong Kong, where protesters temporarily shut the airport earlier this week in the latest development in a summer of protests set off by widespread opposition to a bill that would allow extradition to mainland China.

A survey of participants at 12 different protest actions that garnered a total of 6,688 responses found that the majority of protesters are between the ages of 20 and 29 and have completed a higher education. Across the different protests, the proportion of university-educated participants ranged from 68.2 percent to more than 80 percent.

The survey, conducted by a group of academics based at four different Hong Kong universities, found that the two most important motivations of the protesters were "calling for the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill" (it was suspended, but not withdrawn, in June) and "expressing dissatisfaction with the police's handling of the protest."

Striving for democracy for Hong Kong -- a semiautonomous region of China with its own legal system under the "one country, two systems" principle -- emerged as a key motivation for protesters in July.

Most of the protests have been on the streets and -- save for two separate protest actions at the University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University -- campuses have been "rather quiet," said Samson Yuen, an assistant professor of political science at Lingnan and one of the academics who surveyed protest participants.

Yet Yuen said "student unions and societies have been deeply involved."

"Student activism before this protest was actually on the decline, after the 'dissolution' of the Hong Kong Federation of Students in 2016, when students from four universities respectively voted to quit the alliance. The anti-ELAB protests thus also saw a revival in student activism --- but in a more decentralized manner."

The character of student involvement contrasts somewhat with the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, when professors and students were among the most visible leaders of what became known as the Umbrella Movement. This summer's protests have been largely leaderless.

"During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, student organizations -- particularly the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism -- were truly at the forefront," said Denise Y. Ho, an assistant professor of history at Yale University and an expert on modern China. "Since then, student organizations have faced numerous challenges. The Hong Kong Federation of Students has been reduced after a number of universities chose to disaffiliate. Some of the professors and student leaders faced imprisonment, and others have moved on to other pursuits. On individual campuses, some university-level organizations have seen an increasing localist tendency, fracturing campus politics. It's important to understand this wider context when we consider this summer."

She continued: "Certainly, in the present moment students and young people are still at the forefront, but the center of gravity has changed. It is no longer the campus or traditional forms of association, like a student union. Instead, the movement has gone digital in ways that the aftermath of 2014 conditioned. That is, in order to protect participants and be more flexible, protesters are innovating new strategies and tactics. Thus we have something very new: on the one hand, protesters are more atomized and anonymous, but on the other hand, they are more committed and more united than ever before."

"There's been a self-conscious effort to make this less of a leader-focused movement, and one of the reasons for that is that after the Umbrella Movement the police went after the leading spokespeople for the movement," said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the Chancellor's Professor and a historian at the University of California, Irvine, who studies protests in contemporary China.

Prominent student leaders of the Umbrella Movement, most notably Joshua Wong, served jail time. Two professors who played key organizing roles, Chan Kin-man, a retired associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Benny Tai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, were convicted in April on public nuisance charges related to the 2014 protests and sentenced to 16 months in jail.

Tai was released on bail on Thursday pending his appeal. Close to 500 scholars worldwide have signed an open letter to the University of Hong Kong calling on the university to protect Tai against "politically motivated dismissal or other disciplinary measures."

"As one of Hong Kong's most important centers of free thought and inquiry, HKU has long supported the values civil disobedience seeks to defend and promote," the open letter states. "Any move to dismiss an academic as a result of a conviction arising from peaceful advocacy could cause irreparable harm to the stature of the University as a champion of independent thought."

"There's a fear that I have that the university might reflect in microcosm what Hong Kong as a whole seems to be experiencing in macrocosm," said Terence C. Halliday, an organizer of the open letter and a legal scholar and research professor at the American Bar Foundation who also has affiliations with Australian National University and Northwestern University. "It seems over the last several years there has been a slow, bit-by-bit erosion of some of the fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong's society. Is the Hong Kong administration or indeed Beijing seeking to do with the university what it seems to be doing with Hong Kong as a whole?"

An HKU spokesperson said in a statement that the university "would like to thank all those who have signed the open letter for their concerns and interest in the University of Hong Kong. The University fully recognizes that teachers have good cause protection regarding their appointments, and we have every intention to uphold obligations and duties in such matters. In light of the Court's verdict and sentence in Mr. Benny Tai's case, the University is following up in accordance with the procedures stipulated in the University of Hong Kong Ordinance and Rules and Regulations.

"The University handles staff matters in a stringent and impartial manner in accordance with its due procedures. In view of the confidentiality of personal information involved and the need to ensure the integrity of the process, the University will not make further comments concerning the case."

Meanwhile, the tensions over the future of Hong Kong have spilled onto campuses in Australia and New Zealand, where students supporting the Chinese Communist Party have clashed -- sometimes violently -- with supporters of the Hong Kong protesters. According to The New York Times, about 300 Chinese nationalists interrupted pro-Hong Kong democracy rallies at the University of Queensland, and a video from the incident shows a student from Hong Kong being grabbed by the throat. Another video of a confrontation at the University of Auckland shows three Chinese men shouting down students from Hong Kong at a rally and pushing a young woman to the ground.

"Lennon Walls" containing messages of support for the Hong Kong protesters have been reported vandalized on a number of campuses. It remains to be seen how these tensions over the future of Hong Kong may play out on American campuses -- where Chinese students make up the single largest group of international students -- when the academic year starts.

Wasserstrom, the UC Irvine historian, said a notable feature of this summer's protests has been the organization of rallies for specific occupational and social groups -- protests for lawyers, for example, and for mothers. Still, he said, "the driving force of it is young people, many of them are students, who are particularly passionate about the future of the city they love. They're the people who are going to live longest in the city after 2047 when it's supposed to be fully integrated into the P.R.C.," under the terms of the 1997 handover agreement transferring control of Hong Kong, a former British colony, to the People's Republic of China.

"They have the most stake in this."

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