Student movement’s legacy is a new political order

The 2014-15 student-led pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong known as Occupy Central or the Umbrella Movement has led to a dramatic change in the Hong Kong political landscape with a number of the movement’s activists gaining seats in Legislative Council elections.

Nathan Law (23), a former secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and one of the student representatives who shot to public attention by holding sway in a televised debate with Hong Kong government representatives at the height of the unrest, became the youngest legislator ever in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, popularly known as Legco.

Law and five other young legislators elected on 4 September have been pushing for Hong Kong self-determination because of Beijing’s increased interference in Hong Kong affairs which they believe is undermining the freedoms guaranteed under the Sino-British agreement on the handover of the British Colony Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Under the terms of the agreement, freedoms such as press and academic freedom, an independent judiciary and rule of law were to continue for 50 years until 2047.

Another Umbrella Movement student activist, Yau Wai-ching (25), has become the youngest woman to serve in Hong Kong’s legislature. She and Baggio Leung, a former president of the student union at City University of Hong Kong who was also elected on 4 September, are both members of the Youngspiration ‘localist’ party founded earlier this year. Youngspiration openly espouses independence from China.

But Law himself has denied advocating Hong Kong independence. “I am advocating Hong Kong people should enjoy the right to self-determination,” he said in a number of media interviews after his election victory, in which he said he would push for a referendum to decide Hong Kong’s sovereignty status in the next decades.

“Hong Kong people are very frustrated because they cannot gain what they were promised before the [1997] handover, which is genuine universal suffrage,” he said in a radio interview earlier this year. “We have to find a way out and self-determination is one.”

Campus activities

The prominence and popularity of student activists evident in the election result amid a high electoral turnout will mean increased pressure on Hong Kong’s universities to nip student activism in the bud, academics have said.

Shortly before the election the heads of eight publicly funded universities in Hong Kong were asked by Hong Kong government officials to curb activities that espouse Hong Kong’s independence from China.

A week before the election, University of Hong Kong Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson said that the university respected freedom of speech but that “the [university] senior management’s position on the debate about Hong Kong independence is that it is not a realistic option. More importantly, it would not be in the best interests of the university.”

Joseph Sung, vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong or CUHK, said on 5 September, the day after the Legco election: "The rule of law is the cornerstone of Hong Kong. The Basic Law [Hong Kong’s mini-constitution] stipulates that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the People's Republic of China."

However, Sung also said the university upholds free speech and academic freedom. "Students and staff should express their views through peaceful, rational, respectful and legal means and take responsibility for their own words and deeds," he said.

But members of the CUHK students' union criticised Sung for being vague on what action the university might take against students calling for independence after he said any possible action against students would be based on a “case-by-case assessment”.

Political course

Calls for independence from China, though by no means universal among student activists, were not heard during the 2014-15 student-led unrest, but began to emerge earlier this year among so called 'Localists' – Hong Kong people wanting to roll back increasing mainland influence over Hong Kong affairs – but who also acknowledge that independence would be impossible to achieve.

The Umbrella Movement had more limited demands, but activists were unsuccessful in their key demand for universal suffrage for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is currently elected by an electoral college of individuals hand-picked by Beijing.

This failure resulted in students, who had won significant backing from the public, taking a more political course setting up their own political parties bolstered by the growing ‘Localist’ movement.

Law was elected from the Demosisto party which he founded in April alongside another well-known student leader, Joshua Wong, who did not stand in the 4 September election. Last month Law and Wong were sentenced to community service of 120 hours and 80 hours respectively by a court after being found guilty of unlawful assembly and inciting others to take part in unlawful assembly during the 2014-15 unrest.

Law was still able to stand for a Legco seat as candidates are only disqualified if jailed for three months or longer.

However, another Umbrella Movement activist, Edward Leung, was barred from standing in the election just weeks before by the Election Commission, ostensibly for advocating Hong Kong’s independence from China.

Veto power

Some 30 pro-democracy candidates, including those from older more established pro-democracy parties, were elected to the 70-seat Legco last week, increasing the number from 27 previously. With more than one third majority of seats they have the ability to veto major constitutional change.
Only 35 seats in the legislature are directly elected. The other 35 seats are so-called ‘functional constituencies’ elected by particular interest groups and professional groups from among their members.

In a statement late on Monday, Beijing said it would not tolerate any talk of independence. “We firmly oppose any activity relating to Hong Kong independence in any form, inside or outside the Legislative Council, and firmly support the Hong Kong government to impose punishment in accordance with the law,” state-run news agency Xinhua quoted a spokesperson of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council – roughly equivalent to China’s cabinet – as saying.

Photo: Nathan Law (left) thanks supporters. Photo credit: Financial Times.