Learning Amidst Organized Acts of Civil Participation: Student Protests in Hong Kong

George Wang November 2, 2014 0
Demonstrators in Hong Kong demand full democracy through universal suffrage. • Photo by George Wang

Demonstrators in Hong Kong demand full democracy through universal suffrage. • Photo by George Wang

Editor’s note: The following commentary is written by George C. H. Wang, a Fulbright Scholar teaching at the University of Hong Kong.

When I walked into my classroom on September 29, I saw just one student in the over-sized room. Sitting across from the podium, the lone young woman acknowledged my entrance with a somewhat sentimental grin, “Hi, professor, I’m here.”

Three more students arrived moments later, attributing their tardiness to road closures due to the massive protests in town. I was mentally prepared for a smaller class that day, but I wasn’t expecting to teach only four out of the 30 enrolled students.

As the citywide class boycott took off a week prior, no more than one-fourth of my students were absent. Some colleagues at work presumed that the student protests would gradually dispel, and life on campus would soon return to normal.

Then came that memorable Sunday. Hong Kong residents agonized in disbelief over the appalling images of police officers aggressively dispersing pepper spray into the faces of unarmed youths. Even with 87 rounds of tear gas fired and numerous baton-wielded arrests made, the exhausted law enforcement failed to suppress the ever-energized activist crowd. Its brutal stance only alienated the citizens it claimed to be protecting, resulting in tens of thousands more impassioned locals to become core participants in Hong Kong’s largest pro-democratic movement in history.

Police in Mong Kok. • Photo by George Wang

Police in Mong Kok. • Photo by George Wang

In no time, emails from students flooded my inbox, articulating why they would not be attending class:

“I would like to support the class boycott starting from now, because I see how the police is manipulated by the current government, using unnecessary force to restrain the protesters.”

“As a Hong Kong citizen, it is to my greatest sorrow to see how the government treated unarmed people with tear gas … it is really ridiculous and totally unacceptable.”

“I have never experienced such an urgent need, as a student, to express my thoughts to the government ever before.”

Deeply moved, I was genuinely proud of these brave young men and women who weren’t afraid to stand up against the authority. But I couldn’t help and worry, not just for their physical safety, but also for their future. What has driven these elite college students to risk a promising path to success, by embarking on the dangerous and unlawful activities of civil disobedience? Don’t they know that Hong Kong, although enjoying a high degree of autonomy, has been a territory under the sovereignty of China for 17 years?

“They lied to us,” a student claimed in our earlier conversation, “we were promised direct elections for our Chief Executive by 2017, but now China changed its mind.”

Indeed, Article 45 of the Basic Law, the governing constitution which went into effect in 1997 as the former colony of the United Kingdom was handed over to China, states that “the method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

But on August 31, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress in Beijing, ruled that Hong Kong voters will only have a choice from a list of candidates approved by a nominating committee. It also emphasized that potential candidates must be “patriotic and love Hong Kong.”

Umbrellas in Admiralty, Hong Kong on October 28, 2014. • Photo by George Wang

Umbrellas in Admiralty, Hong Kong in October 2014. • Photo by George Wang

In response, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, an organization comprised of university student unions, called for a campus-wide class boycott to take place on Monday, September 22. About 200 secondary school children joined the boycott on Friday, September 26. A handful of them were accompanied by their parents.

Their demand was simple: full democracy through universal suffrage.

Early midnight on September 27, after several protesters and student leaders were arrested for trespassing into government premises, police officers began discharging pepper spray into the crowd. On Sunday September 28, the boycott quickly expanded into citywide mass rallies when organizers of Occupy Central declared to join in. Large crowds of mostly young people covered the once busy streets in Admiralty. Tensions soared. They wore goggles, face masks and carried umbrellas. Ill-equipped but well-unified, the protesters proudly stood up against the riot-geared police force on that historical day.

“I cried, so hard.” A student described how she was emotionally compelled to join the protests that night, against her parents’ warnings, after seeing what she described as “excessive police violence” on television.

Before clouds of suffocating tear gas dissipated in Admiralty, fresh rallies quickly sprung up in busy shopping areas of Mong Kok and Causeway Bay.

That was how it all started.

And here we are one month later, the Occupy Movements, denounced as illegal by Beijing, continue to show no signs of ending.

An umbrella links two gates in Causeway Bay. • Photo by George Wang

An umbrella links two gates in Causeway Bay. • Photo by George Wang

Despite the occasional clashes among the police, anti-occupiers, and pro-democracy protesters, the atmosphere at the demonstration camps has been otherwise very peaceful. On a normal weekday in Admiralty, nearby office workers would take a leisurely stroll down Harcourt Road during longer breaks. Some sat down and ate lunch with the lesser-groomed protesters. Some checked out the numerous tents, the thought-provoking posters, or the eye-catching art displays. Images of umbrellas of all forms and shapes adorn just about every corner. They became icons of the movement, symbols of defiance.

Protesting students gather in the makeshift study corners where they can quietly study or work on school assignments. Supportive college teachers show up regularly to give lectures on just about all topics. Friendly volunteers bring water and snacks to the weary campers in their tents. On Friday nights and weekends, the crowd multiplies. Parents bring young children over to the protest sites to witness this unprecedented moment of history. Locals and tourists pose for the cameras with big smiles, as if they were in a street carnival.

All of my students have returned to class this week, as it would be unwise to miss the scheduled mid-term exam.

One of them waited outside my office, hours before class started: “Can I have the midterm early? I’m a core member of the Federation of Students, and I need to be there at the student-government dialogue session today to transcribe the talks live.”

As he quietly took the mid-term exam right across from my desk, I thought to myself, I should offer him bonus points for trying so hard to balance his school work with his responsibilities at the protests. But before I was able to say anything, he finished the exam and quickly apologized for being in a rush. Then he was out of the door.

That evening, large outdoor projection screens were set up at the Occupy sites. Wide-eyed protesters, along with millions of Hong Kongers at home, watched live-coverage of this long-awaited direct exchange between student leaders and government officials, a first since the boycott took place. Even though the officials made no concessions to the students, the dialogue was nonetheless a start towards a hopefully meaningful and peaceful resolution. After putting their case to the government, the student leaders returned to Admiralty, where they received a standing ovation from the energized crowd. That night, they were part of the democratic history of Hong Kong.

Suddenly it occurred to me, although my students have missed some classes, they have never stopped learning. Through civic participation and volunteering services at the protests, together they have already contributed significantly to their own knowledge and growth, all the while paving ways for the brighter and democratic future of Hong Kong.

Occupiers in Causeway Bay on October 28, 2014. • Photo by George Wang

Occupiers in Causeway Bay in October 2014. • Photo by George Wang

A free lecture in Causeway Bay on October 28, 2014. • Photo by George Wang

A free lecture in Causeway Bay in October 2014. • Photo by George Wang

Demonstrators line up for free food in Admiralty on October 28, 2014. • Photo by George Wang

Volunteers provide free food and supplies in Admiralty in October 2014. • Photo by George Wang

A young occupier in Mong Kok on October 28, 2014. • Photo by George Wang

A young occupier in Mong Kok in October 2014. • Photo by George Wang

A young Occupier poses near umbrellas in Mong Kok on October 28, 2014. • Photo by George Wang

A boy poses near umbrellas in Mong Kok in October 2014. • Photo by George Wang

Students study in Admiralty on October 28, 2014. • Photo by George Wang

Students study in Admiralty in October 2014. • Photo by George Wang

A white collar stands in Admiralty on October 28, 2014. • Photo by George Wang

A white collar stands in Admiralty in October 2014. • Photo by George Wang

Editor’s note [11/3/2014 at 9:03 a.m.]: A new draft of this story was uploaded with several wording changes throughout.

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