Hong Kong Students Lead Democracy Fight With Class Boycotts

Hong Kong Protests
Protesters stage a sit-in in the business district of Central in Hong Kong, China, in the early morning hours of Wednesday, July 2, 2014. Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

College freshman Joshua Wong skipped his campus tour last month to conduct an orientation of his own: leading hundreds of young people marching for greater democracy in Hong Kong.

This week, the 17-year-old churchgoer is among thousands of students boycotting classes to protest an electoral proposal from China’s Communist Party that they say doesn’t grant a genuine choice in the city’s first leadership election.

“Universal suffrage is the mission of this era and this era belongs to the young people, so let the young ones complete the mission,” says Wong, founder of student activist group Scholarism, which is seeking to maintain momentum for a broader opposition movement that has seen support fizzling. “Young people will always be the pioneers.”

Children as young as 14 have been arrested for civil disobedience as their involvement in the pro-democracy movement polarizes churches, universities and families. Though many were just toddlers when Hong Kong returned to China after more than 150 years of British colonial rule, they resent China’s increasingly assertive control of the city and greater integration with the mainland they see drying up opportunities that their parents enjoyed.

‘Frustrated’ Youth

“The young people are frustrated,” said Hung Ho-fung, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who focuses on nationalism and the political economy in China and Hong Kong. “There’s not much space for them, not only politically, but to try businesses and other things in their careers.”

While 20 years ago young people could open a bookstore or a cafe, soaring rent and property prices have made that impossible, and the economy is dominated by finance and tourism, Hung said.

Home prices have hit a record at almost 15 times average household income for a standard apartment, making ownership a distant dream for graduates after Chinese buyers pumped up the market in recent years. Inequality is widening, with one in five residents, or about 1.3 million people, living under the poverty line, according to a government report last September.

This week’s student protest is part of a series of civil disobedience acts to demand broader rights for the election in 2017 and oppose China’s decision to vet candidates through a nomination committee. The striking students were backed yesterday by almost 400 university academics and administrators who signed a petition offering “support and protection.”

Public Nomination

The Hong Kong Federation of Students held a rally at Chinese University today to kick-start the five-day boycott of classes. Their demands include granting the public the right to nominate candidates in the 2017 election.

“We are willing to pay the price for democracy,” Alex Chow, the federation’s secretary general, told a chanting crowd. The boycott is the first wave of a civil disobedience movement “to wake up society - let them know our city’s death knell is ringing,” he said.

More than 13,000 people joined the rally, Chow said. Students and academics from at least 25 tertiary institutions pledged support for the action, he said.

Protests run the risk of China canceling the popular election, the city’s top official, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, said Sept. 14. Business leaders have condemned plans by the largest pro-democracy group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, to stage a sit-in of the financial district. The occupation may take place immediately after an Oct. 1 march.

China’s Stance

China “unwaveringly” supports Hong Kong’s democratic development, prosperity and stability, Chinese President Xi Jinping told business executives visiting Beijing today. China’s policy toward Hong Kong hasn’t changed and won’t change, he said.

Li Ka-shing and Lee Shau-kee, the two richest men in Hong Kong, were among the executives that met with Xi.

Some 53.7 percent of people in Hong Kong believe legislators should veto the electoral reform proposals if people holding different political views to the Chinese government aren’t allowed to run, according to a survey by Chinese University of Hong Kong. The poll surveyed 1,006 people aged 15 or above from Sept. 10 to 17 and has a margin of error of 3.1%.

Students moved to the forefront of the campaign after Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting said earlier this month that support was waning after China was uncompromising over the election methodology. Some 46.3 percent of Hong Kong people do not support the Occupy Central protests, while 31.1 percent back them, according to the poll.

Younger people tend to support Occupy Central more than the older generation, the survey found.

Week-long Boycott

Wong’s Scholarism group is planning a boycott of secondary school lessons Sept. 26, with more than 100 teenagers joining, he said.

Wong’s political consciousness was awakened three years ago when the government proposed to bring national education that encouraged Chinese patriotism into the school curriculum. Seeing the plan as an attempt to brain-wash kids, he set up Scholarism with friends.

They spearheaded rallies outside the government headquarters in 2012 that forced Leung to scrap the proposal. Estimates of the protesters then ranged from 36,000 to 120,000 people.

This time around, threats of protests failed to yield any concessions from leaders in Beijing.

A bespectacled, slim student who attends the Open University of Hong Kong, Wong does radio interviews before classes and protest planning meetings after.

Mass Arrests

“Young people are always the most aggressive ones in every generation,” he said. “In a rally, who could walk faster? A 40-year-old or someone much younger?”

In the early hours of July 2 this year, more than 500 people, many of them students, were arrested by police for staging a street sit-in at the end of the city’s biggest protest march in a decade. Wong led students at a rally Aug. 31, the day China’s legislature issued its proposal for Hong Kong’s poll. That evening, Wong and scores of students marched on the Grand Hyatt hotel, where a top official from the mainland was due to stay, before dispersing.

“I knew Joshua during the national education campaign,” said Tony Wong Fung, an 18-year-old secondary student who lives in the north of the city, four metro stations away from the border to China. “I saw how a secondary student can lead a whole campaign. He is a model of us secondary students and the post-90s generation.”

Past Failure

The failure by veteran democracy campaigners to bring about political change has helped drive the new generation, according to Hung of Johns Hopkins.

“I used to be afraid of dying because then what will happen with democracy here?” Martin Lee, 76, the founding chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, told a Sept. 14 rally. “But because of the young people standing next to me I don’t worry anymore. They are so capable.”

Student groups have historically played an important role in protests in Hong Kong, supporting their Chinese counterparts who were violently put down by troops at Tiananmen Square in 1989, according to Sebastian Veg, a Hong Kong-based director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China.

What is new, Veg says, is that the student groups now speak for a broad range of young people under 30 who widely reject identification and integration with China.

Students Challenged

The students are meeting resistance. Hongkong Post refused to send out Scholarism’s leaflets explaining civil disobedience, Wong said. The Anglican church warned pupils they would receive lower marks for conduct if they skipped class, in contrast to Catholic leaders who told its schools not to penalize pupils, the South China Morning Post reported. One citizens’ group has set up a hotline for people to report secondary students who skip classes.

China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper called the boycott a “naive manifesto of HK extremists.”

Even so, acts of civil disobedience will continue until the city gets “true democracy,” said Lester Shum, deputy secretary-general of the student federation organizing the strikes.

“The Communist Party has always been afraid of students because of our ideals, because we stick to our convictions,” said Shum. “I want to tell them: it’s going to be a long game ahead.”

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