Student activism signals new movement for social justice

In the face of the accumulated contradictions of global capitalism, the current decade has seen the international rise of student political activism and a thirst for social justice.

Against the backdrop of an increasingly interconnected world, global exchanges of experiences and strategies by student activists across the world stimulate and reinforce the spirit of ‘youthful idealism’, which challenges state authority and market forces.

In Hong Kong, a comprehensive survey of the mission statements of local university student unions reveals that most inherit a legacy of advocating for social justice, which extends beyond concerns about student affairs on the university campus.

With representatives from different student unions as core members, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, or HKFS, was established on the basis of a motto which explicitly includes “building a democratic China”.

Dating back to July 1984 when the Sino-British Joint Declaration had just been signed, HKFS advocated the introduction of direct elections in the selection process for the 1985 Legislative Council.

The federation is also one of the core organisers of the ‘Umbrella Movement’ which mobalised a historic civil disobedience campaign against China’s Standing Committee of the National People's Congress’ decision on the reform of the Hong Kong chief executive’s electoral system.

Student protests

Similarly, the ‘818 incident’ in 2011 demonstrated the way in which state authority was not respected but challenged by students. In celebration of the centenary of Hong Kong University, Li Keqiang, the Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, was officially welcomed and invited to a ceremony on 18 August 2011.

As one of the two keynote speakers, it was arranged for Li to be seated in the chancellor’s chair, a symbol of the highest authority in university ceremonies. The official arrangement was meant to honour the Chinese guest. Meanwhile, the police force, arriving with more than 1,000 officers, was invited to take over the job of university security and there were no student representatives allowed at the historic event.

Irritated by an official welcome that offended ‘academic dignity’, there were heated discussions which culminated in a protest by 1,000 students, alumni, ordinary citizens and journalists.

The incident resulted in the university’s formation of a seven-member committee to conduct a four-month review investigating the whole issue. About two months later, the Hong Kong University, or HKU, president said he would discontinue his tenure after it expired in August 2012.

In response, the HKU council chairman insisted he had not intervened but added that the new chief executive should have 'political sense'. The issue led to the democrats in the Legislature calling for an independent investigation into the president’s planned departure.

Student idealism is countering an increasingly ‘economised’ academy, especially in the face of a rising trend of corporate philanthropy. In 2005, Li Ka Shing, a Hong Kong-based billionaire, made a historic donation of US$125 million to the HKU faculty of medicine and in return, the university said it would rename the faculty in recognition of Li’s philanthropy.

The move drew immediate criticism from students and some prominent medical alumni who condemned it as a betrayal of academic autonomy and criticised the faculty for falling for the ‘temptation’ of money. Although the protest did not achieve any results, Hong Kong society has seen a divergence between university administrators and student-alumni groups in how they understand university affairs.

This tension is an important factor in the university-alumni relationship which is vital for fundraising among alumni. Differences of opinion between university administrators and student-alumni groups over the role of capitalism in higher education were exposed by the recent Umbrella Movement.

Amid all the social upheaval, an engineering company decided to cancel its funding for all universities, simply because it was unclear whether they supported or opposed the Umbrella Movement.

Alumni groups and individual academics immediately responded by initiating a debate about civic philanthropy and this may lead to a rise in the role of civic philanthropy in Hong Kong higher education, and may answer concerns about university autonomy and philanthropy.

Hong Kong’s Watergate

Hong Kong students have also been more outspoken than academics in defending academic autonomy. The case of Robert Chung – known as the ‘Watergate incident’ in Hong Kong academia – is a good example of this.

Chung, a researcher involved in polling the public for their opinions, revealed to the mass media in 2000 that his former doctoral advisor suggested he refrain from his polling work as public opinions usually reflected critical views about the post-handover Hong Kong government.

The case caused public debate and HKU set up an independent investigation panel. The public hearings concluded that Chung’s academic freedom had been attacked. The HKU Students’ Union played an active role in asking the council to adopt the panel’s report and more than half of the HKU academics signed their petition.

Consequently, the university president was compelled to resign. With lessons learned, the university now accommodates Chung’s team which has been polling public opinion about the government and PRC ever since.

Education expert Professor Burton Clark said there are four competing values in higher education: social justice, competence, liberty and loyalty. I suggest that student political activism places a greater emphasis on social justice and remains highly critical about loyalty to the government. Student activists act on any threats, infringements and attacks against academic freedom, especially when the professional life of academic staff is threatened.

This is particularly noteworthy because academics are significantly less outspoken than students in defending academic autonomy, although they are not unconcerned about the prevalence of pro-competition higher education policies in Hong Kong – which in turn increasingly ‘economise’ academic life.

Hong Kong’s people, especially its young, were perceived as politically apathetic in the colonial era. But the civic awakening brought about by recent student movements, epitomised by the student leadership in the Umbrella Movement, leads us to redefine the meaning of political participation among the younger generation.

Local and foreign visitors to the Umbrella Movement protest sites have possibly witnessed the ideal society the Hong Kong students were trying to construct.

In a search for social identities and emotional ties with ‘Hong Kong’, the students’ passion and fearless pursuit of social justice compel the establishment to respond – and higher education researchers and administrators to re-examine the predominant university-state-market dynamics in shaping the higher education paradigm.

Dr Hayes Tang is a lecturer in Asian studies in the Hong Kong University school of professional and continuing education. This article is based on his paper in the current issue of Comparative and International Higher Education.