The Umbrella Revolution – Pro-democracy or anti-China?

Due in part to the increasing disparity in economic development between Hong Kong and China, growing tourism and the inward migration to Hong Kong of Mainland Chinese, as well as their spending and social habits, tensions between Mainland China and Hong Kong have been rising over the past years.

The recent protest is being portrayed as a democratic movement for greater flexibility to nominate and elect Hong Kong’s chief executive.

But a number of scholars believe it is more likely a response to Hong Kong’s inability to address local issues including the rising cost of rent, the inadequate supply of housing and school places, income inequality and an inadequate infrastructure – especially within the context of Mainland China’s increasing prominence and voice in the world.

Observing the developments of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, I have been asking myself a number of key questions.

With substantial use of social media, are students and other protesters media literate? Are they being realistic and do they understand the realities of the current world order and the various limitations placed on Hong Kong and even China? And looking forward, what should be the current and future role of Hong Kong higher education regarding this protest?

Pro-democracy or anti-China movement?

Although projected to be a pro-democracy movement calling for universal suffrage and the right to nominate their own candidates for chief executive, the so called Umbrella Revolution is also a projection of anti-China sentiments, a demonstration of discontent over economic development and Hong Kong’s failure to improve the quality of life for the lower strata.

It should be noted that Hong Kong and its students have a tradition of protesting against past and future Chinese events and policies, and have strongly voiced their disgust at Mainland China – including tourists and temporary and permanent residents from their motherland.

In fact, the Tiananmen incident and Hong Kong’s return to Mainland China are just a few of the annual protests in Hong Kong participated in by local and non-local students and other members of society.

Role of Hong Kong’s higher education community

Characterised by institutional autonomy and having a high degree of academic freedom, Hong Kong’s higher education institutions have freely discussed political, economic and cultural issues relating to Mainland China, including the various challenges within contemporary Hong Kong society.

Hong Kong’s relatively free media, including social media, however, tend to highlight the Mainland China-Hong Kong issues by taking either pro-Beijing or anti-Beijing positions.

Students need to analyse and understand the realities of Hong Kong’s position and capacity to plot its own political development and to see the issues within the broader developments of contemporary world order.

As such, Hong Kong’s higher education institutions have a responsibility to ensure proper understanding of broader issues including presenting a balanced and well-informed discussion of Hong Kong’s challenges, limitations and the notion of multiple identities – for example, Hong Kongers with a Chinese identity.

Hong Kong’s young people need to understand their cultural heritage, history and that the treaty returning Hong Kong to Mainland China is an agreement between two sovereign states and its interpretation, implementation and development lies between these two states and not for Hong Kong to interpret, given that it was never a signatory but actually the object of such agreement.

Media literacy and higher education

Furthermore, it is not only the notion and importance of media literacy but the need for media literacy among students and the broader population that are highlighted by the ongoing protest.

Responsible reporting and posting on social media is increasingly becoming a necessity across the world and higher education institutions need to ensure students – the future leaders of society – are not only social media savvy but responsible and able to critically understand the difference between opinions, suggestions, assertions, facts and realities.

The traditional rules usually conformed to by traditional media do not apply to social media and the younger generation’s ability to differentiate reality, imagery and fantasy across the various social media platforms will shape the future of society and the world order.

In relation to higher education, it is no longer enough to just present a platform for discussion, but to ensure students are equipped with the right mindset, skills and competencies to critically analyse the massive information (and misinformation), opinion and agendas that form social media.

The need to incorporate a mandatory course on media literacy, as discussed with a professor from the University of Hong Kong just over a month ago, and ensuring non-biased and factual discussions about political, economic, social and cultural issues are framed within the realities of the world order and not within a microcosm of Hong Kong and Mainland China-Hong Kong relations.

As I have advocated peace-building as the fourth (and probably the core) of universities’ missions, I am deeply saddened by the ongoing protest in Hong Kong.

It has not only proven my personal observations of anti-China bias in the territory, but has highlighted Hong Kong higher education’s failure to inculcate among its students a critical understanding of the world order beyond that of its locality and its relationship with Mainland China.

Can we actually say they are going to be world citizens coming from a world city? Expressing one’s views without respect for those of others and without taking responsibility for one’s actions is not the Hong Kong I have lived in and knew.

Instead of celebrating such protests, Hong Kong higher education institutions need to look back and ask themselves a number of questions.

Are we doing the right thing? Did we equip our students with critical thinking skills and inculcate in them the sense of responsibility, respect and understanding required of a global citizen? And are we ensuring media literacy among our students in the growing and usually unregulated world of social media?

As such, I call on the higher education community in Hong Kong to reflect on their current and future role in developing media literate global citizens, not only for the sake of Hong Kong but for society in general.

* Dr Roger Chao Jr is a higher education specialist with UNESCO and holds a PhD from City University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on regionalism, higher education and comparative education.