HK’s march of youthful idealism

HK’s march of youthful idealism
Students Clare Wong, 20, Phoenix Ng, 21, and Jolly Lam, 21, taking part in the student boycott at Tamar Park.

SINGAPORE - Bespectacled and with toothy smiles, students Jolly Lam, 21, Clare Wong, 20, and Phoenix Ng, 21, quiver like a trio of shy rabbits.

In a low whisper, Ms Lam - a Chinese Studies undergraduate who wants to be a teacher - confides that she never, ever, skips classes. Except for last week.

What comes next is even more shocking. "I am willing to be arrested and jailed for any civil disobedience action if the government tries to introduce Article 23 again," she says, referring to a national security law shelved in 2003 after a protest march by half a million Hong Kongers. It would require the city to prohibit acts of "treason, secession, sedition, or subversion", and could, say, ban any group banned in mainland China.

Ms Lam and her friends were taking part in a week-long boycott of classes to protest against what activists denounce as "sham democracy". Last month, Beijing announced strict rules for the 2017 chief executive race, essentially restricting the contest to candidates it approves of.

On a Wednesday morning, hundreds of university students were sprawled out over the lush green of the Tamar Park next to the government headquarters in Admiralty. The air was almost carnival-like but for a lecture by Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) academic Edward Yiu on the link between cronyism and the city's housing woes.

Things however turned ugly on Friday night when over 100 students broke into the government compound, while thousands remained outside. Scuffles broke out between the police and protesters, with pepper spray and warnings failing to disperse the students. At least six have been arrested, including the leader of the Scholarism activist group Joshua Wong.

Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) secretary-general Alex Chow, 24, reportedly admitted that the action was pre-planned. In Hong Kong's ongoing and deeply polarising battle for constitutional reform, students filled with youthful idealism and righteous rage have been at the forefront, often even moving ahead of older, more cautious activists.

On July 1, for instance, they went ahead with a mini-Occupy Central exercise in Chater Road despite the Occupy organisers' preference to wait until they had heard the decision from Beijing. More than 500 were arrested for illegal assembly, and obstructing the police.

The youth are Hong Kong's post-1990s generation, aged 24 and below, who grew up after the 1997 handover from British colonial rule to China. Their push for a bigger say in the city's affairs is often channelled through associations such as the HKFS - comprising university union members - and Scholarism, led by secondary school students.

Student activism is not new to Hong Kong.

In 1971, HKFS members were arrested for illegal demonstrations over the disputed Diaoyu Islands. Two years later, students staged an illegal sit-in to criticise the British government for its failure to tackle rampant corruption.

Students were also involved in advocating for the rights of the Yau Ma Tei boat people, who were living in overcrowded conditions.

Among them was Professor Lui Tai Lok, now a Hong Kong University (HKU) sociologist, who recalls being arrested on a bus for illegal assembly en route to a protest at Government House.

In 2010, the post-1980s label came into vogue when young activists protested against the building of a high-speed railway linking Hong Kong to the mainland.

Now, an even younger, more politicised and angrier wave has appeared at the fore.

While protests in Hong Kong remain largely peaceful, confrontations have become more commonplace. In June, a melee broke out when protesters tried storming the Legislative Council building over New Territories town plans.

Prof Lui, who has written a book on Hong Kong's previous four generations, muses: "Nowadays, there are more angry young people who want to do something, and who are engaging in a lot of expressive actions."

Much of this stems from deep disenchantment with what Mr Chow terms a "twisted" political system that represents the interests of Beijing and businesses rather than those of the people.

In an earlier interview with Think, Mr Chow, a student of comparative literature and sociology at HKU, believes "street politics is more effective; it can generate pressure on the government".

He adds: "Violence can be justified at times."

Such sentiments are borne out by a study last year by the Ideas Centre, a research centre in the city, which polled more than 1,000 post-90ers and found that compared with their predecessors, they had greater distrust of authority, including the government and mainstream political parties.

Many respondents believed that protests, rallies and hunger strikes could empower people and bring about change, and that behaviour such as hurling objects or cursing at establishment figures, could help draw the public's attention.

More than three-quarters of those polled said they believed disputes and conflicts were inevitable but they were optimistic that "if we fight back, it is possible to effect change".

Such thinking is condemned as radical, naive or political posturing by some older Hong Kongers.

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