Student movement has left an indelible mark on society

The Hong Kong ‘Umbrella Movement’ and related ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ attracted worldwide attention in late 2014 when images of protesters using umbrellas as shields against police tear gas circulated the globe.

In this early episode, protesters were peaceful, unarmed and unprepared for such a police response to their assertion that proposed reforms of Hong Kong’s electoral system failed to meet international standards for universal suffrage. This found much sympathy in society.

As the world watched, a large-scale movement was borne out of these events, culminating in a months-long occupation of Hong Kong’s most significant financial districts.

The protest movement in Hong Kong has been distinctive in a number of ways. As global media outlets observed, when compared to some other movements around the world, the Hong Kong protests have been, well, polite.

Umbrella protesters received much praise for creating utopian spaces for participants to learn, share and collaborate, while also sending a smiling message to critics, apologising for obstructing business-as-usual and redirecting traffic with helpful signs for police and commuters.

Leadership of youth

Of greater interest to those in the region, however, has been the leadership of youth – particularly high school students – in the key events of the movement.

Named one of TIME’s most influential teens in 2014 for his role in the Umbrella Movement, Joshua Wong became a local household name in 2012. That year he and his peers, then aged 14 to 15, founded the youth organisation ‘Scholarism’ in protest against a proposal for ‘Moral and National Education’, widely seen as a pro-mainland China curriculum.

This event, which was Hong Kong’s first youth-driven protest since 1984, was seen as a success by the many parents, educators and others who participated, resulting in the government ‘shelving’ the controversial curriculum indefinitely.

While Occupy Central, which intersects with and partly inspired the Umbrella Movement, was initiated by Benny Tai, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students have been the most visible in leading the movement on the streets.

From apathy to activism

Few observers in the region would have predicted five years ago that youth in Hong Kong would lead such a movement.

As in much of the world, youth apathy was taken for granted in Hong Kong in the past. Local schools had been seen as a pacifying influence since the British colonial era, during most of which teachers were forbidden from providing any form of political education.

Others have cited cultural factors for Hong Kong youth obedience, such as the value of harmony in social roles and respect for elders in Confucianism.

Although such traditions may seem less powerful in cosmopolitan, ultra-modern Hong Kong, many people teaching in Hong Kong have been amazed to see their good, model students in class transformed into freedom fighters on the street.

Why has the new generation in Hong Kong taken up politics with such passion at this historical moment? Current Chief Executive CY Leung cited foreign influences, such as foreign-based educators or organisations.

A recent school reform ‘Liberal Studies’ has also become suspect. However, a 2015 report by the Education Policy Unit at the University of Hong Kong, or HKU, indicates that most local schools strived to remain neutral during class boycotts and protests.

Research I recently completed with colleagues at HKU suggests that among undergraduate university students, personal political attitudes (such as being critical of the government or in support of Hong Kong autonomy) play a greater role in recent civic engagement than prior civic education or the views of parents, who tend to be more politically passive and-or conservative.

Others see the movement more simply as a reasonable response by youth who feel they have less and less of a say when it comes to improving life for themselves and those around them, at a critical juncture in Hong Kong-mainland China relations.

Questions of belonging

While we continue to explore its causes, there can be no question that Hong Kong’s youth protest movement has left an indelible mark on society, its terms of debate and reflections on its core values.

As in other parts of the world, the public questioning and conspicuous discontent has required a larger cross-section of society to reconsider where they stand.

Participation of diverse youth in the movement has highlighted questions about belonging and the civic identity of ethnic minorities, who are often treated like outsiders despite their long-term historical presence and contributions in society.

It has also encouraged people to imagine what kind of world might be possible as an alternative to the status quo in Hong Kong, even after most protesters have returned to class, and most physical markers of the movement have been removed.

We in Hong Kong remain tuned in to youth voices, as they will no doubt continue to provide novel questions and novel answers.

Liz Jackson is assistant professor in the faculty of education at the University of Hong Kong. Her current research explores multiculturalism and civic identity and youth engagement in Hong Kong. She is special guest editor, along with Timothy O’Leary of the University of Hong Kong, of a forthcoming issue of the journal Educational Philosophy and Theory, which will focus on education and the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement.