The Origins of Student Activism in Hong Kong

The student movement in Hong Kong can be traced almost to the beginnings of the first university. Only one year after the Hong Kong University (HKU) was established in 1911 to educate future bureaucrats, the Hong Kong University Union was founded. Renamed the Hong Kong University Students’ Union, the group was registered as an independent student-run organization in 1949. Three years later, in 1954, the students published their first edition of the Undergrad, a student newspaper that emphasized social issues and was instrumental in the mobilization of like-minded students during the 1970s and the diffusion of student activist groups' viewpoints. The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), an umbrella organization that includes many different student groups from various universities, was founded in 1958 and was the leading voice of the student movement during the 1970s. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Hong Kong University dominated the higher education sector until the Chinese University of Hong Kong was founded in 1963. Today, Hong Kong has seven public and two private universities. The student body also has grown dramatically. While in the 1970s less than 2 percent of the population was fortunate enough to study at a university, in 2004 approximately 18 percent of those between the ages of 17 and 21, or 70,139 people, were enrolled in Hong Kong’s tertiary institutions (Moy 2004). Hong Kong’s system of higher education has undergone significant massification.

Since becoming a British colony in the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Hong Kong has developed into a semiautonomous territory with its own legal system, its own currency, and an almost autonomous administration. In the early years, the colony was ruled by an authoritarian regime dominated by expatriate bureaucrats who administered the colony mainly based on security concerns. Social matters were left largely to Chinese neighborhood organizations. With the end of World War II and the general trend toward decolonization, the Hong Kong government also started a slow process of localization in the civil administration. A plan to partially democratize Hong Kong was, however, shelved in 1952 (Tsang 1988). Instead, the colonial government insisted that it could become democratic, or at least responsive to the people, by introducing consultative bodies that would ascertain what the public wanted. Furthermore, the government nominated people who it viewed as representative of certain sections of the population to government institutions. A growing emphasis on social policy during the 1970s changed the character of the Hong Kong government, which increasingly became integrated into the society (e.g., through its new role in providing public housing). Limited democratic reforms in the early 1980s and 1990s increased the ability of Hong Kongers to participate in politics, but the colonial government failed to institutionalize a fully democratic system (Thomas 1999).

The unusual political circumstances in Hong Kong provided a distinctive social environment in which student activism was later to arise. The end of the civil war in China in 1950, with the victory of the Communists and the retreat of the Nationalists to Taiwan, had caused thousands of

Chinese to flee the mainland and find refuge in Hong Kong. This influx created a massive population increase and had a great impact on the political culture of the city-state. Those who had fled, it was claimed, wanted a peaceful life and thus avoided politics. This attitude was labeled the “refugee mentality” of the Hong Kongers and was considered one reason for the depoliticization of the citizenry (King 1975). Students who participated in protest activities in the 1970s were thus mostly from those families who had been born and bred in Hong Kong. As the city-state’s youth grew attached to their environment, they also became increasingly interested in the social and political affairs of their community.

In common with many of the other cases studied in this book, student activism during the early 1970s filled a vacuum that had arisen as the result of the widespread depoliticization of the population. This depoliticization had, however, unlike in other Pacific Asian states, not been the outcome of the concerted efforts of a developmental state. Rather, it was influenced by the widely held belief that political contention would lead to destructive unrest. This belief arose after two major riots, in 1966 and 1967. The first of the two riots was the result of economic difficulties and was triggered by a rise of ticket prices of the Star Ferry Company.1 The second riot, which occurred only one year later, originated during a labor dispute in March 1967 and turned violent in May when police clashed with demonstrators who were trying to break into a factory; it ended with bombings of various targets at the end of the year, which were probably perpetrated by communist activists. The 1967 disturbances were also closely linked to leftist political groups, such as the Federation of Trade Unions.2 However, there was little public support for the protesters and rioters. Most political groups in Hong Kong sided with the government, reinforcing the notion that public demonstrations potentially threatened the stability of the colony. The willingness of the students to stage demonstrations in subsequent years, therefore, positioned them as vanguards of protest. Seeing themselves as a moral voice of the community, the students placed themselves at the forefront of Hong Kong’s society. Benjamin K. P Leung therefore argues that the student movement was “a forerunner and a facilitating factor in the transition to a democratic society in Hong Kong” (2000, 210).

Significant student activism began to take shape in the early 1960s when some students of the Hong Kong College Students’ Social Service Team, a student group that was interested in social issues and united eighty to one hundred students from various tertiary institutions, became concerned with the state of poor people in the colony (Lam 2003). However, their activity remained very limited. This changed after the 1967 riots, even though most student activists, like other Hong Kongers, were opposed to the rioters. The government, however, concluded that the riots were the result of a lack of communication between itself and the community, and it thus introduced new feedback channels, such as the City District Officer (CDO) scheme in 1968. This new openness provided student activists with a crucial opportunity to challenge the government, or as Jane A. Margold (2000, 6) argues, “for university students, the 1967 uprising was a point of awakening.” The first important activity of the new student activism occurred in 1969, when sixty activists from the student unions of Hong Kong's two universities joined students from Chu Hai College to conduct a two-day sit-in in front of the latter school to protest against the dismissal of twelve students for their critical comments about the college's administration in the student newspaper. Students from other tertiary institutions, such as the Hong Kong Baptist College (which became Hong Kong Baptist University in 1994), also supported the movement (Leung 2000).

Anticolonial concerns motivated the students to propagate their version of Chinese nationalism. The activists found their target in the language policy of the colony, which favored English and gave no official place for Chinese. To mobilize fellow students, seventeen activists set up a special committee to make Chinese an official language in 1970. On September 19, 1970, they organized a peaceful protest in which more than five hundred people participated (Scott 1989, 111). At the time, English was used in the courts, and the students argued that ordinary people who did not speak the language were unable to properly defend themselves (Wong 1971).3 The government finally accepted the demands of the protesters when it elevated Chinese to the status of an official language of the city-state with the Official Languages Act of 1974. Ian Scott notes that “had it not been for student agitation, it seems unlikely the changes would have been made” (1989, 112). The crucial role of the students at the time allows us to classify them as a strategic group (Thompson 2009). Relying on protest tactics, they were successful not only in challenging the government, but also in bringing about significant institutional change.

Hong Kong's status as a British colony until 1997 greatly influenced the student movement during the 1970s. Students across Asia often have promoted nationalist causes, and Hong Kong is no exception.

What distinguishes Hong Kong’s student movement in the early 1970s from that of other anticolonial Asian student movements is the fact that students did not aim for independence of the state in which they lived but instead demanded unification with a much larger state, the People’s Republic of China. A spokesperson of the Hong Kong Federation of Students proclaimed in the February 17, 1972, edition of the South China Morning Post: “To be Hong Kong-born Chinese and not just Chinese poses an embarrassment to us, and a problem to be solved.” At this time, the student activists were more or less united in their demand for unification with the mainland. They also shared this goal with other leftist pro-China groups, such as the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, but they were the only ones willing to demonstrate in favor of unification.

An important event heightening the nationalist orientation of the students was the 1971 protests against the U.S. decision to return the Senkaku Islands (known in Chinese as the Diaoyutai Islands) to Japan. When the American government returned sovereignty of a number of the islands in the East China Sea located between Taiwan and Okinawa to Japan in 1970, it infuriated many student activists who strongly believed that these islands rightfully belonged to China. In particular, the Diaoyutai Islands became the focus of activists aiming to “save” the islands. When the HKFS requested permission to protest on this issue at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay on July 7, 1971, the government was opposed. Still sensitive in the aftermath of the 1967 riots, the government tried to prevent the protest. Activists were split over whether to ignore this decision and conduct the protest anyway. In the end, some student groups, such as the Hong Kong University Students’ Union, refused to participate, while others, such as the Hong Kong Defend the Diaoyutai Action Committee, went ahead with the rally, which mobilized six thousand people (not only students, but also other members of the public). The reaction of the police was harsh, with officers beating and arresting twenty-five students (Lam 2004). Leung (2000, 214-15) argues that the government’s reaction resulted in a reorientation of the student movement, which subsequently began to increasingly target the Hong Kong government. However, it would be wrong to overinterpret the significance of the crackdown; not only had the students anticipated the government’s reaction, but also their anticolonial rhetoric had already led them to oppose the government. Nevertheless, the harsh treatment of the protesters allowed activists interested in social issues to somewhat reorient the focus of the campaign and increasingly press the Hong Kong government for political changes. The majority of the activist students, however, remained convinced that the solution to all social problems could not be achieved through reform of the political system, but rather through unification with the Chinese mainland (Margold 2000).

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