Student federation faces uncertain future in pro-democracy battle

The Hong Kong Federation of Students, or HKFS, shot to the limelight during pro-democracy protests last year, but the university student alliance is facing an uncertain future and a severely curbed political role after four of its eight constituent university unions recently voted to leave the Federation.

With major political events coming up – such as the annual commemoration in Hong Kong of the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing, and the Hong Kong government’s political reform proposals released for public consultation on 22 April – the wind has been taken out of the Federation’s sails.

HKFS is having to focus instead on internal reform to address the concerns that have led to the losses in its membership.

City University of Hong Kong was the latest to withdraw from the Federation after a student vote on 8 May. It joined Hong Kong Baptist University and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, whose students voted in April, and the University of Hong Kong, the first to disaffiliate from the Federation after a student vote in February.

Four universities, including the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, have voted to stay in the Federation.

HKFS secretary-general Nathan Law, who took over the leadership post in early April, admitted last month the disaffiliations had distracted the Federation from major political issues such as the reform of the 2017 elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive – the issue that sparked off the student boycott in September 2014, which morphed into almost 80 days of street occupations that later became known as the Umbrella Movement.

Political reforms

Law said HKFS would press pan-democratic legislators, who have been calling for universal suffrage for the elections of Hong Kong’s chief executive, to vote down the government’s reform package which does not provide for broader elections.

However, no particular actions have been planned, and students say the Federation risks becoming irrelevant to the political process – a far cry from the heady days of 2014 when students challenged the government head on in a bid to have a more representative system.

Several months ago it would have been inconceivable for HKFS not to have a key role in the political package, yet they have been conspicuously inactive, says Surya Deva, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong’s school of law.

“This is being played out in the streets and the Federation is almost not there on these issues,“ Deva told University World News.

Government officials – who have travelled around Hong Kong in an open-topped bus – and democratic legislators are out on the streets seeking public support for the political package to select the new Hong Kong chief executive in 2017.

Nonetheless, Deva maintains that “if the government package passes through the legislature, I can anticipate some radical protests including from the Federation.”

Tiananmen commemoration

The Federation had also decided in early April to leave the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movements in China – the organisation set up after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, of which HKFS is a founding member, and which takes a lead role in organising Tiananmen commemoration events in Hong Kong, which backed student-led democracy movements in Beijing.

“We have decided not to attend the Alliance events as the Federation of students, though individual university student unions may attend,” HKFS said in a statement.

This will be the first time HKFS will be absent from the ceremonies since 1990, though individual union members may take part in a personal capacity and Alliance spokesman Richard Choi said last month: “We will still be seeking ways to allow other representatives from universities to speak on stage during the 4 June vigil.”

Disaffiliation setback

Wong Ka-fai, HKFS deputy secretary-general, said on local Hong Kong radio the disaffiliation of half the constituent universities was a setback for the Federation which could no longer claim it “stood for the majority of students”.

But University of Hong Kong student Alex Chow, who was HKFS secretary-general at the time of the 2014 protests, disagrees. “This argument that the Federation is not representative is, to me, invalid,” he insists. “Whether the Federation is represented by four student unions or eight, all the decisions are made by consensus of the executive committees of the [individual] student unions.”

However the break up of the Federation has been a blow, and important joint initiatives may no longer be possible, he admits. “The disaffiliations increase the difficulties for students to launch a campaign like the one in 2014,” Chow told University World News.

Independent student unions have far less clout – though a new second federation made up of student unions that have disaffiliated from HKFS has been mooted. Chow says it is hard to see how two separate camps of students can benefit the democracy movement in future.


Whether or not a rival federation emerges, HKFS will still need to tackle the issues that led to its break up.

The HKFS leadership, Chow among them, were blamed for the perceived failure of the Umbrella Movement, in particular for not being able to change the Hong Kong government’s position on universal suffrage for the chief executive elections, which the government opposed with Beijing’s backing. HKFS was not even able to wrest any concessions from the government, critics argue.

“After 79 days of occupation young people could not see the achievements and the result was a disappointment. Some people want to point a finger at the decisions made by the Federation. They feel that some organisation has to be responsible,” said Chow who stepped down from his role as HKFS secretary-general after his university, the University of Hong Kong, voted to leave the Federation earlier this year.

Students felt the Federation leadership had not consulted them and had acted too hastily during the protests in some cases, such as a HKFS decision to storm government offices, and other actions that exposed students to violence.

“Paradoxically, there were other students who think they were too soft and they did not know what to do,” said Deva.

Beijing’s role

Some see the hand of Beijing in the breakup of the Federation. Beijing has made no secret of its anger at the involvement of students and academics in opposing the Hong Kong government on political reforms.

“There is definitely more interest taken by pro-Beijing or pro-establishment forces in trying to manage the student body elections,” says Deva pointing to increased leafleting and campaigning by these groups at Hong Kong’s universities.

However, he adds “I don’t think they have made a significant impact yet in terms of capturing the student bodies, but my feeling is they will definitely try.”

Chow says HKFS has learned to operate in an environment where pro-Beijing factions are active on campuses. “Pro-Beijing student groups are separate [and set up] with the help of the local Communist Party in Hong Kong, or even by Beijing, so there is a long history – the Federation has been one of the targets that Beijing or the local Communists would like to point a finger at or would like to dismantle.”

Nonetheless he admits Hong Kong’s “student unions and student organisations in the past did very little to accommodate mainland students. That’s something that student organisations will really have to think about.”

Some students say the voice of mainland Chinese students is not represented – the numbers of mainland students and researchers on Hong Kong university campuses has grown significantly in recent years.

And as the former British colony of Hong Kong becomes more integrated with China, one bone of contention within HKFS is to what extent it should be involved in Chinese issues, including pushing for democracy on the mainland, not just Hong Kong where they see themselves as shoring up freedoms they already have.

“Some students think Hong Kong’s fight for democracy should be separate from that of the mainland,” said Chow.

Apart from improving transparency so that students understand its decisions, HKFS will have to repair the mistrust on campuses that has arisen, he says. “What will be key is how the Federation reforms itself when it comes to social issues and justice issues,” Chow says.

It is in these areas, such as rule of law and freedom of speech, that Hong Kong student groups differ from pro-Beijing ones and this will ensure the Federation still has a wider political role in Hong Kong.