Emily Feng elucidates student perspectives on the demonstrations in Hong Kong

September 22, 2014, would have been like any other day, if not for the thousands of students who streamed into the square of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, instead of filing dutifully into their Monday classes. The students sported yellow armbands, shouted “Reject fake elections!” and clutched in their hands the signature umbrellas which would in the next few days, come to symbolize the movement that captured global attention: Occupy Hong Kong. More than 13,000 university students joined the class boycotts that day, and secondary students joined soon after.

Only four days after the boycott began, Hong Kong police used pepper spray on the students and other participants. They detained three student leaders as they led boycotters in retaking a public square in front of the Hong Kong government headquarters.  Angered by these police actions, a civil society group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) initiated a civil disobedience campaign to occupy the central business district of the city.

In the early hours of September 27, occupiers peacefully took a stand in one of the busiest financial centers in the world, a  world that then witnessed the birth of a social movement. It is a movement that, against all odds, has ignited worldwide support, infuriated investors, and posed the most serious challenge to Chinese political control since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Hong Kong students of all ages form the nucleus of the movement. The Hong Kong Federation of Students, a group of eight student unions in Hong Kong, has been instrumental in marshaling university students and professors who were behind the first OCLP campaign this July, in which volunteers collected nearly 800,000 signatures as part of an informal “referendum” on Hong Kong’s 2017 elections. Since the class boycotts in September, secondary students – led by student group Scholarism with the deceptively diminutive Joshua Wong at the helm – have joined the protests, along with university professors, teachers, and, belatedly, labor unions.

The source of the movement may strike some as surprising: why is it that those who have lived under a particular system of order for the shortest amount of time feel the most compelled to change it?

Whether out of youthful idealism and energy or a deep sense of social responsibility, this kind of determined political activism is entirely at odds with the narrative that adults have been spinning about today’s youth in both US and Chinese cultures. Older pundits bemoan the decline of political participation among twenty-somethings and summarily declare that, in the age of the selfie, this imagined generation of youth knows more about the newest iPhone than it does about electoral reform, spends more time online than it does with people, and has forgone any notion of social commitment for more narcissistic pastimes.

In the US, we have our millennial generation. China has its balinghou to denote those born after the 1980s, and Taiwan has its “strawberry generation.” Yet, as Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and  Hong Kong’s civil disobedience campaign have shown, greater China’s youth have challenged these preconceptions by demonstrating a deep commitment to political activism. This politicization of the youth has a huge amount of potential to achieve political reform from within the famously repressive Chinese Communist government.

So, why are students so important to Occupy Hong Kong’s campaign? How have they participated in bringing an obscure activist organization into the global spotlight? What might students be able to tell us about the significance, of Occupy Hong Kong?  To answer these questions, I set out to understand the movement by talking to the students themselves.

The roots of Hong Kong’s civil disobedience campaign can be traced back to 1984, when Hong Kong was still a colonial territory of the United Kingdom. That year, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and China’s General Secretary Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Among other things, the declaration set 1997 as the year for a “handover” of sovereign rule of Hong Kong to China. Importantly, the agreement also promised that “the current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged” for at least 50 years.

The conceit of “one country, two systems” has always been both temporary (it is set to expire in 2047) and fragile. In 2007, the Chinese government informally promised to allow Hong Kong to freely nominate and elect its Chief Executive, Hong Kong’s top political office, in 2017. However, in a sudden reversal, Beijing published a controversial “white paper” calling for more direct governance of Hong Kong and asking the Hong Kong judiciary to be “patriotic” in their work. Despite initial protests in Hong Kong, Beijing finally declared that all 2017 chief executive candidates would first have to be approved by a committee appointed by Beijing.

In reaction, Occupy Central levied a series of demands. On one level, the actions of the group can be seen as a rejection of Beijing’s attempts to more strictly and directly govern what it perceives as  a highly valuable Chinese territory. On another level, they are also a pointed critique of Hong Kong’s highly stratified economic development and unequal distribution of wealth.

However, the campaign is not just a criticism of Hong Kong’s shortcomings; it is a statement and reaffirmation of the city’s civil liberties and cultural richness. The city’s active press, independent judiciary, and vocal citizens stand in contrast to the political rigidity of the Chinese Communist Party’s tight grip on the mainland. The tidal wave of public participation can be attributed to both the Hong Kong public’s desire to cement Hong Kong’s political liberalness and its condemnation of Beijing’s encroachment on the “one country, two systems” policy.

Beijing has responded to Hong Kong with indignation of its own. An October editorial published in the Chinese state newspaper People’s Daily stated that the “extremely small number of ‘Occupy Hong Kong’ people have, for their own self interest, ignored the law” and in doing so had “destroyed the foundations of society in Hong Kong.”

What precisely these foundations are is what is being so hotly contested in the protests. Is Hong Kong ”just a city” of greater China or something more, something meaningful all on its own?

On the morning of May 4, 1919, student representatives from thirteen universities gathered at Peking University, enraged by the unfair terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Like their future counterparts in Hong Kong, they planned an occupation to protest the terms of the treaty. And like their future Hong Kong peers, the “May Fourth” students called upon their peers and fellow citizens and garnered widespread public support. They left an enduring historical legacy, even if their immediate demands fell on deaf ears.

In 1976, students poured out en masse to commemorate the death of Zhou Enlai, and to subtly voice a host of heterogeneous complaints: rural urban inequality, educational access, and dissatisfaction with China’s top leaders. This event followed the fateful “Hundred Flowers” movement in 1956, in which university students spearheaded one of the first significant discussions of public expression since the People’s Republic of China’s founding in 1949.

A student at the time, Wei Jingsheng, wrote a particularly famous essay called “The Fifth Modernization,” which rings almost prophetic in light of Occupy Hong Kong. “What is true democracy?” Wei wrote. “It means the right of the people to choose their own representatives [who will] work according to their will and in their interests. Only this can be called democracy.”

Most famously, it was again idealistic students, now joined by intellectuals and laborers, who occupied Tiananmen Square in 1989. Spontaneously sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang, the Chinese party secretary in 1986 who spoke out on the side of students during the 1976 protests, the root cause of the 1989 protests foreshadowed some of those of Occupy Hong Kong: a quickly privatizing market economy had left significant portions of the population behind. Rather than negotiate with the protesters, the Chinese government chose instead to violently erase the square occupiers, as well as the memories of their demise. “Hong Kong is dramatically influenced by 1989 democratic movement. It was during that moment so many HK people lost their last faith to Chinese Communist Party,” a Hong Kong journalism student wrote to me.

This history of student protest and cultural reverence for students has left potent legacies from which today’s Hong Kong protesters have drawn inspiration. One part marketing, one part historical awareness, Occupy Hong Kong has cleverly meshed pop culture with protest. Whether by singing “Do You Hear The People Sing,” a musical reference to the real-life 1832 Paris Uprising or invoking visual analogies to the hunger strikes and square sit-ins of 1989, Hong Kong’s students have situated their present struggles within a continuous narrative of student activism, idealism, and public support.

This potent mixture of naiveté and idealism has not skipped over Hong Kong’s own civil disobedience campaign, and recognition of the young protesters’ intentions won the student boycotts of September 22 widespread favor. Even those skeptical of the movement as a whole have grudgingly admitted admiration of the student protesters. A Chinese student, who had been studying for a graduate degree in Hong Kong for the past two years and wished to remain anonymous, wrote me: “I must say that sometimes I, as a graduate student undergoing past year in China, might think they are too naive to negotiate with CCP (Chinese Communist Party). But I really appreciate their actions. They are biting the bullet and marching toward darkness.”

More recently, Hong Kong’s civil disobedience campaign has elicited comparisons to Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, a student reaction in May to the hurried and opaque passage of a trade service treaty with mainland China. “Is Xi Losing Control of its Peripheries?” a Diplomat article asked shortly after the Hong Kong civil disobedience campaign began. As in the Occupy movement, Taiwanese students held bright yellow sunflowers in lieu of bright yellow umbrellas, recycled their trash, and had professors continue classes in staged teach-ins in front of Taiwan’s legislature. Upon witnessing the events unfolding in Hong Kong months later, one observer wrote later that it was as if “Taiwan’s tale is being written into Hong Kong’s.”

Consequently, Hong Kong students have been able to gain and mobilize local and global support. How students will use their social capital is another question. The organic, leaderless features of the movement as it stands today have made its civil disobedience components both flexible and resilient. The current model may, however, prove ineffective when channeling mass participation into specific policy reforms.

Contrary to its reputation now, Occupy Hong Kong did not actually start with students. The original founders of the OCLP movement are middle-aged men: Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, Chan Kin-Man, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Chu Yiu-ming, a Baptist pastor who sheltered Tiananmen Square activists to avoid persecution in 1989. Yet, the initial influence of the three men has been eclipsed by the rising political stardom of student leaders like Alex Chow and Lester Shum, leaders of the Hong Kong Student Federation.

In particular, Joshua Wong, a fiery spokesperson and leader of the secondary student-group Scholarism, has taken the international spotlight. Wong led the charge in 2011, when he was merely 14, to block a move by mainland China to add “moral and national education” to Hong Kong’s mandatory curriculum. Beijing eventually dropped their proposal to include a national history requirement which Hong Kong citizens wrote off as political indoctrination and brainwashing after more than 100,000 individuals gathered in the city’s streets to protest the measure.

In those protests, a few enterprising demonstrators even fashioned a “Goddess of Democracy,” a direct allusion to that of the 1989 Tiananmen Square occupiers. In its most recent incarnation, the Goddess of Democracy has been channeled into Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Goddess,” a reference to the symbol of the protests and a popular tool used to shield demonstrators from tear gas.

So what are students and their leaders asking for this time? Perhaps a unifying characteristic of mass social movements is that they are never truly about what the protesters profess to demand. The universal demands of all of the demonstrators has been the ability to freely elect their chief executive in 2017 and the resignation of Hong Kong’s current chief executive, CY Leung. Like their predecessors from May Fourth, Tiananmen, and Taiwan, though, today’s demonstrators in Hong Kong are mainly concerned with the present and future distribution of economic gains and opportunities.

A Hong Kong student named Zhiyang summarized the grievances of his generation: “Locals find a growing sense of losing control over their own city…the influence of China in Hong Kong is visibly increasing day by day from political governance to urban landscape. The failure to establish a real democratic suffrage mechanism, which once promised to Hong Kong, is the last straw to trigger the act of desperation.” Students like Zhiyang have been careful to frame the civil disobedience movement as an action of last resort, taken in an effort to protect Hong Kong.

Since 1997, Hong Kong has only seen its socioeconomic classes diverge. Nearly one fifth of Hong Kong’s citizens live below the poverty line, even though the island has the highest number of billionaires per capita in the world. It’s Gini coefficient, a variable which measures relative inequality, has steadily risen to 0.537 in the last forty years, making Hong Kong one of the most unequal societies in East Asia. Poor residents and migrant workers sleep in “cage homes,” while the rich inhabit some of the most expensive real estate in the world. In a significant parallel with housing protests in mainland China, rising property values have been a uniquely effective catalyst for widespread political mobilization in Hong Kong.

Crucially, much of the inequality Hong Kong’s citizens have witnessed has been perceived as the effect of mainland interference. On the Hong Kong stock exchange, the top six stocks are those of Chinese corporations and state-owned enterprises. In a move symbolic of the financial interests against which Occupy Hong Kong has been aimed, the “Big Four” accounting firms in Hong Kong took out a paid newspaper advertisement the day of the July 1 protests this summer. The city’s residents complain that they hear utterings  of Mandarin on the street more frequently than do Cantonese .

In the face of these largely economic pressures, Occupy Hong Kong protestors have been politically ill-equipped to voice a shared vision for the city’s future development. What has resulted is a building frustration that the exercise of their political rights has not translated into real results. “I have participated in the Occupy with tens of thousands of other people. I support true democracy because I have witnessed many bad budgets got passed and the discontent of being represented by a chief executive that I have no part in electing,” Serruria Leung, a Hong Kong university student, told me. Moreover, Occupy Hong Kong has shown her that there are many others who share her views. “My opinion has become stronger throughout the protest, as I see that many more citizens share the same view and that they are reasonable and well-respected.”

Seen another way, Occupy Hong Kong is also an echo of the deep anxieties Hong Kong experienced during the 1997 handover to China. The fear is that with the gradual erosion of the Hong Kong’s political freedoms will be the concomitant acceleration of widespread social and economic inequality and the reduction of a great city to a bland commercial space. A journalism graduate student, Mengyang Zhao, described to me his perception of mainland Chinese citizens: “Most mainland people don’t know Hong Kong. To them, Hong Kong is an ideal place for shopping spree. No one takes time to study its history.”

There are Hong Kong citizens who doubt the authenticity of the civil disobedience campaign’s young protestors. More cynical observers have labeled the fervor as a kind of misplaced nostalgia.  “I don’t think students have a particularly special bond with the movement but a more simplified understanding of Hong Kong,” a graduate student at Hong Kong University named Tony told me. “Young students tend to have a stronger sense of local identity and less ties with their origins in the Mainland. In the meantime many of them tend to romanticize the colonial governance prior to the handover as they barely experienced that era. I’d venture a guess that there are a few extra elements contributing to students’ campaign (besides rooting for democracy): identity-expression, false nostalgia, and idealism.”

Others have dismissed Occupy’s demands to be empty threats issued by petulant whiners. Ding Wang, a Chinese graduate student studying abroad in Hong Kong wrote to me that “the majority of mainland Chinese students feel that the Hong Kong students just don’t want to go to class…Actually, my own personal view is that Hong Kong is like a disobedient child who wants to run away. When I was little I heard many of my friends threaten to run away, but how many actually carried through?”

Despite its warm reception in Western media, Occupy Hong Kong has not actually attracted the widespread support of Hong Kong’s own citizens. The continued occupation in the center of Hong Kong has disrupted the city’s public transportation lines, forcing some to walk home each night. Thousands of students and workers no longer turn up to their requisite classrooms and offices, opting instead to sleep on the streets with the protesters. Investors and corporate entities have braced themselves for a decline in stock prices and business, and have accused students of ruining the financial reputation of Hong Kong. And, of course, there are the speculations – a result of a mixture of Chinese state propaganda and a deep suspicion of ardent political activity – that the Hong Kong students are being manipulated by foreign interests.

“Of course I support the students and their intentions. But I worry for them. I think a lot of people used to support them, during the boycott, when it was just students peacefully assembling outside. Now it’s not just students, it’s Occupy Central with Peace and Love, and they are disrupting the financial life of the city. Many Hong Kong citizens do not support them anymore because they are impeding daily life,” a graduate student in economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong told me. “I’m afraid that they’re being used,” she concluded. When pressed to identify to who might be using the students, she admitted, “I don’t know. I’m just being suspicious and careful for the students.”

An assistant professor at China Baptist University of Hong Kong and a former undergraduate student at Hong Kong University fired back at such student detractors on social media later that night: “People who still complain about the protestors disrupting their ‘normal’ life: Do you realize what HK will be like if we don’t fight for democracy now? Think of the disruptions of a life without freedom of expression and justice. If we don’t make our voices heard now, they will never be heard. And to people who suggest the protestors stop: If you have better strategies, carry them out. If not, be grateful for what our youngsters are doing for YOUR city, YOUR life. Or else, congratulate yourselves for being apathetic and lead a life of intellectual and political slavery.” His online diatribe attracted a variety of sympathy and criticism.

The message hints at a larger trend emerging from the protests: the realization of a politicized youth who would take to the streets in order to reclaim political rights for all.

On October 6, the world held its breath, then collectively released a sigh of disappointment as planned talks between Hong Kong government representatives and student leaders of the civil disobedience leaders were called off. The students who I talked to remained largely hopeful despite government signals that talking at all was now off the table. “Once someone has determined to take up an active citizen role, it’s hard to revert it,” Serruria wrote me. But she added an ominous conditional: “Unless they get gunned down or heavily oppressed after the campaign.”

The possibility of violence has worried many observers of the Occupy Hong Kong protests whofear the mainland Chinese government will make the same decision it did in 1989. However, twenty five years later, the Chinese government has evolved more subtle tactics than blunt force, including encouraging divisive factions, planting seeds of inner disagreement, and creating a negative public image.

All the while, the Hong Kong protesters remain buffered by the protection of global scrutiny. “The fact that Hong Kong can win global support for its fight for democracy – from New York to Singapore – already means a victory for a long march for Hong Kong’s democracy,” George Chen, Financial Editor of the South China Morning Post , told me.

In the short term, most onlookers and protesters have nursed split views on the potential success of Occupy Hong Kong. Despite their outward idealism, most students concede that the demands of Occupy Hong Kong – direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive and the resignation of current chief executive C.Y. Leung – will go unrealized. “Personally I am quite pessimistic,” Mengyang confessed to me.

In the course of writing this article, I myself watched the footage of thousands milling around Hong Kong’s still relatively orderly streets day after day. I watched as Hong Kong authorities and students agreed to talks, only to have government officials call them off. Less than two weeks later, pro-government forces tore through makeshift street barricades and beat one of the protesters. In the beginning, I held out hope that such massive and continuous occupations would shift the balance in favor the Hong Kong protesters. Later, as I clicked through pictures of a bruised Ken Tsang, the protester beaten by police, I slid towards cynicism.

Throughout, however, I have always remained in admiration of the spirit of Hong Kong’s protesting students.  The oncoming challenge will be to sustain the level of political engagement and fervor the Occupy movement has inspired, despite the disappointment from immediate losses. Galvanized by her students’ activism, Hong Kong professor Denise Ho penned an open letter to her young charges, writing “It is less a fear for your arrest, or bodily injury… More than this, I am afraid of what happens when the world you hope to create does not come to be.”

I believe that Professor Ho’s deep concerns will, thankfully, be proven wrong. The enduring legacy of Occupy Hong Kong will be a politicized and savvy young generation, with the know-how to orchestrate mass social movements. None of the Hong Kong students I talked to were blindly idealistic; instead, they were pragmatic about what they could realistically achieve.. Indeed, many protesters are all too aware that their immediate actions will not guarantee free elections in 2017.

The cognizance of student power and rights has, however, inspired the energetic and well-educated to push for a commonly shared vision of a better future. Actual execution will take strong leadership and more than just protests, but students have taken the all-important first step. Gemma Yim, a 21 year-old Hong Kong student movingly told the New York Times her mixed feelings. “I’m sure it’s impossible to have such things at this moment, because we are fighting against the Chinese government,” she admitted. “But after this week, I have become aware of the power of dreams.”

Meanwhile, protesters continue to occupy the streets of the city, enlisting enterprising social media apps like FireChat (which in conjunction with hundreds of other phones can create its own WiFi network) to counter government restrictions on information flow.

Bolstered by a long heritage student activism and emboldened by public attention, the Hong Kong students have the tools to communicate their message. Political reform is a slow undertaking, but news travels fast.  To take advantage of the power of information, the political activists of our generation will themselves become digital warriors.

One student I wrote to, Chris Ng, a Hong Kong law student, succinctly gave voice to the flame he hopes future waves of students can carry forward: “The Umbrella Revolution has given us great hope, less in the short run but more in the long run, because we have a large group of quality citizens that are ready and will pursue democracy for Hong Kong.”

Emily Feng is a senior at Duke University. Contact her at emily.z.feng@gmail.com.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of China Hands.