Hong Kong students on strike

See more of my coverage of Hong Kong and Macau for The Economist here

THOUSANDS of students in Hong Kong are boycotting classes this week to lie on sprawling lawns outside government headquarters and discuss topics such as “post-totalitarianism” and George Orwell’s book “Animal Farm” (see their protest calendar, in Chinese, here)The five-day action involving students from two dozen institutions began September 22nd with a rally (pictured) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. On September 24th students marched through the heart of the city and tied yellow ribbons—a symbol adopted by the local democracy movement—on the closed gates of the chief executive’s office.

Organisers estimate at least 13,000 students are participating in the boycott. It is the biggest student demonstration in Hong Kong since a group of teenagers led protests against the introduction of patriotic “national education” in primary schools two years ago. That campaign forced the government to back down from a plan to use the curriculum to promote “a sense of national belonging and identity” among schoolchildren. The goals this time are less narrow and more ambitious. Unlike in 2012, both secondary school and university students—led respectively by Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS)—are working closely together. 

The boycott is in response to a decision last month by China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), to impose restrictions on the choosing of candidates in elections for the territory’s leader that are due to be held in 2017. The NPC proposed that a 1,200-member committee, made up mostly of members loyal to the Communist Party, will choose two or three candidates for the election. The winner will be decided by popular vote. China had long promised that the polls would be the first of their kind involving “universal suffrage”, but had not before spelled out how limited voters’ choice would be.

The protesters’ demands are ambitious. In a manifesto, the university students call on the central authorities to withdraw the NPC’s plan and issue an “apology to the Hong Kong people”. They say voters themselves should be allowed to nominate candidates and they call for the resignation of the Hong Kong’s top three officials. In an open letter to the territory’s current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, they threaten to “intensify [their] actions toward other forms of civil disobedience” if Mr. Leung refuses to engage with them. In a departure from the rhetoric of older activists, the HKFS characterises China’s style of control over Hong Kong as “colonial”.

Local legislators have the power to turn down the NPC’s plan. If one-third of them reject it, the method of choosing Hong Kong’s leader will remain unchanged: a closed committee will continue to make the selection by itself (acting, effectively, on instructions from Beijing). While public opinion polls show a majority of residents prefer “imperfect” democracy to the status quo, the number of lawmakers who have pledged to vote against the proposed arrangements is sufficient to prevent the NPC’s proposal from being enacted. Mr. Leung has warned that if legislators do not endorse the plan, the city will not have another chance to hold a popular election for the post of chief executive until 2022. The HKFS says it is still worth trying. “People tell us there’s no hope, so what is the point of protesting? I think that because we are taking action despite the lack of hope, that there is hope for Hong Kong,” says a senior HKFS activist, Lester Shum.

Some students, however, may back away from radical action. Occupy Central, an alliance of activists who support free elections, has hinted strongly at plans to occupy the territory’s business district starting on October 1st, China’s National Day holiday. Such a protest was first proposed (in Chinese) nearly two years ago by a law professor, Benny Tai, in anticipation of the NPC’s announcement. But the leader of the HKFS, Alex Chow, worries that participants in unauthorised protests might be arrested.  “Students would have many risks imposed on them if they participate in Occupy Central. We question how much we are willing to pay for Hong Kong’s future,” he says. The next few days should provide some answers. 

(Picture credit: Xaume Olleros/AFP)

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