Students return to the fore in ‘localism’ protests

Widely believed to have become a spent force after student-led pro-democracy street protests, Hong Kong’s students have re-emerged as a key group backing local issues as riots gripped Hong Kong during the lunar New Year holiday last week.

More than 130 were injured, including police officers, in the highly localised but violent unrest during which police fired warning shots in the air in the early hours of 9 February.

Some 64 were arrested when police and protesters clashed in Hong Kong’s gritty Mong Kok district over the right of street hawkers and snack sellers to ply their trade without harassment from the authorities during the holiday period.

Local groups took the side of the hawkers after the authorities attempted to crack down on illegal street traders. The unrest was quickly dubbed the ‘fish-ball revolution’ after the popular Hong Kong street food.

Student groups said the unrest was the result of pent-up anger over unresolved issues after the largely peaceful student-led Umbrella movement of 2014-15 had failed to wrest any pro-democracy concessions from the Hong Kong administration.

Student groups have since rallied around social injustice issues in Hong Kong. Many young people are particularly hard hit, unable to afford the city’s skyrocketing rents.

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University Students' Union said the protest had been caused by a variety of unresolved social problems and the government should not shift the blame onto its citizens.

Joshua Wong, convenor of the student activist group Scholarism and a prominent figure in the Umbrella movement, told local radio that activists had become radicalised after the 2014 democracy movement. “If government officials do not show more concern, things will get worse,” he told Radio Television Hong Kong on Wednesday.


Among those arrested were Derek Lam, a member of Scholarism, who was about to depart for Taiwan from Hong Kong airport on a scheduled family vacation.

Scholarism expressed deep resentment of Lam’s arrest, which they described in a statement posted on Facebook on 10 February as an “indiscriminate arrest”. The group said Lam had not been involved in the violence.

Joshua Wong said the government had “fabricated excuses” to blame Scholarism for the clashes.

A number of local commentators have connected the riots with the Umbrella movement. “The police or the government just want to create the impression that Scholarism was involved in the riot,” Wong said.

Edward Leung, a Hong Kong University student and spokesperson for Hong Kong Indigenous, a ‘localist’ group, was among those arrested. He appeared in court on Thursday 11 February. He is also a candidate in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council by-election to be held on 28 February.

Lawyers said Lam could be charged with rioting – which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years. However, his role in the disturbances was not made clear. By Thursday, during initial court hearings, some 34 had been charged with rioting.


Hong Kong Indigenous, which was not prominent during the Umbrella movement, had led the protests in favour of street hawkers, as one of a number of new groups that espouse Hong Kong ‘localism’.

Localism groups are attempting to push back against the rising influence of mainland China on Hong Kong’s autonomy. They cover a broad spectrum of views from those who simply want to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms to more radical anti-mainland groups provoking street protests, and student groups who even talk of a Hong Kong independence from China – a call unheard of before the Umbrella movement.

Others appearing in court on Thursday included the head of the Hong Kong University Student Union Billy Fung and three other HKU students, including Stephen Ku, who is about to take up the editorship of the Hong Kong University student magazine Undergrad.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong said in a statement that two of its students were arrested and it would “continue to keep track of the latest developments from the incident and the circumstances of those students”.

The university said it condemned acts of violence and appealed to the “various sectors of the community to express their opinions through rational, peaceful, non-violent and lawful means”.