Students now Hong Kong’s most popular ‘political’ force

The Hong Kong Federation of Students, which shot into the limelight during pro-democracy protests in recent weeks, has emerged as Hong Kong’s best-known political group, according to a Hong Kong University – HKU – survey carried out during the height of the protests.

The federation’s public popularity rating is higher than other political groupings in Hong Kong.

However, it is unclear whether the students are able to play a greater political role at a time when Hong Kong’s leadership is lacking direction, and parties that sit on the city legislature are losing public support.

“Our latest survey shows that the Hong Kong Federation of Students passes the recognition benchmark for the first time to enter the ‘top 10’ list [of political groups] and also ranks first,” according to Robert Chung, director of HKU’s Public Opinion Programme.

Almost nine out of 10 people surveyed in the poll involving just over 1,000 respondents had heard of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, or HKFS, and almost half of those questioned supported it.

Previously the HKFS, comprising university student unions of the city’s main universities, was virtually unknown to the wider public.

It began to impinge on public consciousness when it called for a campus-wide class boycott from Monday 22 September. The boycott quickly escalated into full-scale street protests after police fired tear gas to disperse protesters outside government offices on 28 October.

Key members of the HKFS have become household names since they took part in a televised debate with members of the Hong Kong administration, including Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, in a bid to end the protests. The students were seen to be more articulate than Lam and other government representatives.

Parties less popular

The student group came top out of some 12 political organisations mentioned in the HKU survey, several of them with representatives in Hong Kong’s lawmaking Legislative Council.

Scholarism, the secondary school students’ group led by 17-year-old Joshua Wong, which has been prominent in the protests, was the fifth most recognised political group.

The popularity ratings of political parties such as the pan-democratic Civic Party, Democratic Party and Labour Party, as well as pro-establishment organisations, all lost ground in the public’s estimation, according to the survey conducted from 20 to 23 October, just as non-conclusive televised talks between HKFS representatives and members of the Hong Kong administration were underway on 21 October.

This is seen as an indication of the extent to which traditional political groups representing Hong Kong people failed to find negotiated solutions to the political crisis that erupted over demands for candidates for elections in Hong Kong to be freely selected.

Beijing wants the candidates for the elections to be held in 2017 to be picked by a special 1,200 person committee, which pro-democracy groups say will merely do Beijing’s bidding.

“All political groups have become losers” as a result of the protests, said Chung in a statement released last Tuesday. In some cases the ratings of existing political groups had gone down significantly, he said.

The pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the pro-democracy Civic Party and the Democratic Party all dropped to record lows in popularity since first appearing on the list in 1992, 1994 and 2006 respectively, he said.

Leadership vacuum

While the HKFS has played a forefront role in the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement, the student group has not been able to fill the general leadership vacuum in Hong Kong, according to analysts.

Speaking last Tuesday before the United Kingdom parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Chris Patten – the last British governor of Hong Kong before the colony’s handover to China in 1997 – said:

"What is happening in Hong Kong is that there is an extraordinary lack of leadership. [The government] needs to get into serious negotiation with the protesters.”

Patten described the protesters as “a generation that feels they are having their future stolen”.

“The aims of the demonstrators should be to get a serious dialogue with the government, but things may have gone past that now," Patten said. "The worry now is that it’s become increasingly difficult for anybody to climb down.”

With no new talks scheduled between students and the Hong Kong government, and the students saying they are not interested in further talks, the result has been a stalemate.

Third-party mediators like the Chinese University of Hong Kong Vice-chancellor Professor Joseph Sung and other academics are no longer trying to facilitate dialogue between the students and the government, sources at the Chinese University of Hong Kong or CUHK, said.

According to analysts, the HKFS' prominence has effectively sidelined the traditional parties and even other protest groups such as Occupy Central, co-founded by university academics Benny Tai, a Hong Kong University law professor and Chan Kin-man, an associate professor at CUHK.

The two announced their return to teaching duties at their universities last Tuesday. Some students said this seemed to indicate that they were relinquishing a front-line role, although Tai stressed that they remain involved in the movement.

Proper channels

Traditional democratic groups in the Hong Kong legislature say they have been offering the students support from the sidelines but admit that the HKFS has taken centre stage.

However, they note that the student group does not have the channels that political groups have to engage with the government.

Regina Ip, a former Hong Kong security secretary and now chair of the New People’s Party, has suggested the HKFS should be represented on the nominating committee for 2017 election candidates. “HKFS has a long history and is widely recognised, and their officers have been elected,” she said.

Students have openly said they want to distinguish themselves from the political groups, in order to present themselves as a mass movement rather than a politically-motivated one.

With no movement on the political front, demonstrations continue in several parts of the city, though the numbers have dwindled.

Democratic Party lawmaker Albert Ho said street protests would last much longer, with many protesters determined to stay until they achieve concrete progress on political reform.

But he added on Hong Kong radio that the possibility that the Hong Kong government would respond to their demands was practically nil.

Students have said they may take their protests directly to Beijing. Lester Shum, the HKFS deputy secretary general, said the students wanted to go to Beijing because it appeared the Hong Kong government was unable to resolve the political impasse.