How do Hong Kong's student protests compare with those worldwide?

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 07.09, 21/09/2019
How do Hong Kong's student protests compare with those worldwide?

Since the start of the school term in Hong Kong earlier this month, students from secondary schools and universities have formed so-called human chains, linking hands in a show of support for the anti-government movement gripping the city for months.

While student activism has mostly gained traction in Hong Kong in recent years, such campaigns date back centuries worldwide.

Widely regarded as one of the oldest universities in the world, students of the University of Bologna in 1217 left the historic Italian city for surrounding regions to protest against unfair economic practices. Some returned three years later after authorities made concessions such as tax reform.

Besides institutional and educational causes, young people have taken to the streets across the world over political, economic and environmental matters.

At the centre of all movements is the desire of youth to have their voices heard, especially given they see themselves as the future of their societies.

As Hong Kong protests rage on with young people forming the bulk of the demonstrators, City Weekend takes a look at student movements around the world, including what is going on at home and where it may head.

Students launch the Free Speech Movement California against a campus ban on political activity. Photo: FSM Archives

What were some of the major student movements worldwide?

Thousands of students protested a campus ban on political activity during the 1964-65 academic year at the University of California, Berkeley, spawning the Free Speech Movement that sparked an unprecedented wave of student activism across the US.

Hundreds of students surrounded a police car for 32 hours to stop it from taking a protester to jail, and more than 800 people were arrested in a sit-in at the school's administration building. Under pressure from students and staff, the university granted amnesty to those facing disciplinary action and agreed to protect students' rights to free speech and advocacy on campus.

Students are among the Beijing crowds surrounding military trucks carrying soldiers on their way to Tiananmen Square, a day before the bloody crackdown on June 4. Photo: Sygma Agency

In 1989, China saw mass protests, weeks-long sit-ins and hunger strikes at Tiananmen Square in Beijing by students and residents demanding greater democracy and transparency.

The social unrest culminated in a brutal military crackdown on June 4, which effectively ended the movement. The Chinese government has never released a death toll but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from hundreds to thousands.

Later in the year, in what was then Czechoslovakia, police suppression of a peaceful student demonstration in central Prague sparked a series of protests " including general strikes and student occupation of campuses " in cities against the ruling communist regime. In 10 days, the uprising " known as the Velvet Revolution " ended more than four decades of one-party rule in Czechoslovakia and ushered in free elections and democratic reform.

Vaclav Havel, who went on to become Czech president after leading the 'Velvet Revolution' against the Communists, waves to supporters from a Prague balcony in 1989. Photo: Reuters

In August last year, Greta Thunberg, a then 15-year-old Swede, skipped school until the general election on September 9 after Sweden faced its hottest summer in 262 years. Her actions encouraged young people to follow suit to demand stronger government action to combat climate change. The movement has since spread worldwide, including to Hong Kong, Britain, the United States, Canada, France, South Korea, Finland and Germany.

What were other recent cases of student action in Hong Kong?

In September 2012, more than 30,000 demonstrators took to streets in protest against a national education programme aimed at nurturing patriotism among Hong Kong students. The rally snowballed into a 10-day movement that culminated in a sit-in at the government headquarters. Amid claims the government plan was a brainwashing attempt, authorities withdrew the proposal.

City University staff and students in Hong Kong displayed their opposition to a national education course in 2012. Photo: SCMP

Two years later, student leaders including Joshua Wong Chi-fung " who also spearheaded the national education protests " led demonstrators to a government compound that effectively triggered the 2014 Occupy movement. Also known as the "umbrella revolution", the action would become a 79-day civil disobedience campaign that brought parts of the city to a standstill.

Several activists, including Wong, were convicted of various offences including unlawful assembly, with some having to serve jail time.

Protesters raise their umbrellas during the movement for universal suffrage in 2014. Photo: SCMP

What is happening now locally?

Since the new school term began this month, human chains have become a common presence in Hong Kong universities and secondary schools with thousands linking up to pressure Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor into answering protesters' five demands.

The method appears to be inspired by the Baltic Way mass demonstration, when about 2 million people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formed a human chain spanning about 680km across the three states in their push for independence from the Soviet Union in 1989.

Students from Diocesan Girls' School in Hong Kong formed a human chain this month to press the government into meeting the remaining demands of the 2019 movement, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill. Photo: Winson Wong

The Hong Kong human chains are part of a wider anti-government movement sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill. The legislation would have allowed the transfer of criminal suspects to jurisdictions with which the city lacked such an agreement, including mainland China, where critics fear there is no guarantee of a fair trial.

While Lam promised to deliver one of the demands this month to officially withdraw the bill when the legislature meets again in October, demonstrators still want the other demands met, one of which is an independent inquiry into police's handling of the protests. The other three comprise amnesty for those arrested, not categorising protests as riots and universal suffrage.

Meanwhile, the human chains brought together students and alumni from different schools. For example, on September 6, more than 500 people in masks lined walls surrounding Kowloon Tong's elite schools " including La Salle College and Bishop Hall Jubilee School " with the chain extending about 700 metres. More than 300 people, including students and alumni from seven Tai Po secondary schools, also linked up.

"We cannot go to the front lines, but we can still yell slogans and show others that many secondary school pupils are also fighting for the five demands," said a Form Six student from Kau Yan College, surnamed Ng. In the tertiary sector, September 9 saw the joining of hands of hundreds of students from Baptist University and City University, both in Kowloon Tong.

Besides human chains, secondary and tertiary students also set up Lennon Walls " facades adorned with Post-it notes and messages supporting the protests " on campuses. Some students also boycotted classes and attended rallies including a gathering for secondary school pupils at Edinburgh Square in Central and another for university students in Chinese University in Sha Tin on the first day of school.

What are Hong Kong's students doing when they boycott classes, and are they in the majority?

While some students skipped classes to express their demands, some have attended or watched live-streamed lectures given by teachers and scholars voluntarily on topics relating to civic education. University students also organised discussion forums on such topics on campuses.

While thousands boycotted classes on the first day of school on September 2, the numbers dwindled soon after. Most schools the Post approached in the following days said 20 or fewer students skipped classes to support the movement.

A student concern group from Yan Oi Tong Chan Wong Suk Fong Memorial Secondary School in Tuen Mun said fewer chose to boycott classes because students did not want their relationship with their families to deteriorate. Many students admitted they would not boycott classes as they feared disciplinary action when normality resumed.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced she would formally withdraw the extradition bill in a pre-recorded television address on September 4. Photo: Handout

How have authorities and politicians responded?

The Education Bureau issued guidelines to schools before the first day of the term spelling out the government's position against boycotts. Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said the bureau would leave it to the school management to decide in a professional manner whether to punish pupils.

Many of the local tertiary institutions said they respected the students' decision to boycott, but only Shue Yan University and City University stated clearly that they would not penalise students for such action.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Junius Ho Kwan-yiu drew the ire of pupils after he set up a team to inspect around 100 secondary schools flagged as having "signs of class boycotts", such as black attire, chanting slogans and handing out fliers.

What's next for students amid the movement?

Thirteen tertiary institutions last week issued a joint statement urging Hongkongers to participate in a general strike, boycott classes and continue with the non-cooperation movement between October 1 " which is National Day " and 7.

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