The gap between Hong Kong and China continues to widen after the Chinese legislature announced an election reform proposal local democrats and student groups say is utterly unacceptable.
As a result, political tension is mounting over the “one country, two systems” principle under which Hong Kong is promised a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after its 1997 handover to Chinese sovereignty.
Hong Kong students are in the frontline of a campaign to bring matters to a head, alongside Occupy Central and several pro-democracy groups.
But by no means is this a unique Hong Kong experience. Students have played a key role in mass protests from Beijing and Bangkok to Ankara, Manila and Teheran.
Hong Kong university students were heeding a call to arms by their leaders when they announced a week-long class boycott to protest Beijing’s newly announced framework for the 2017 chief executive election.
They’re backed by more than 20 lecturers and professors who have offered to conduct remedial classes for students who join the boycott.
The students describe the boycott, set to start on Sept. 22, as a “final warning” before a wider civil disobedience campaign led by Occupy Central.
And they say they will step up the action if Beijing and the Hong Kong government continue to act against the will of Hong Kong people.
In the 17 years since the handover, Hong Kong students have enjoyed a certain level of independence in terms of academic freedom, especially freedom of association and assembly.
Student groups, for instance, have been dominated by social activists rather than pro-Beijing supporters.
Hong Kong student protests are no different from those in other parts of the world in their advocacy for social justice, good governance, free speech, etc.
And like their counterparts in other places, these students often face criticism from their parents, teachers and friends who might see things differently, but they are unwaveringly loyal to their cause.
Beijing treats student activists as a threat to social stability which in the larger Chinese context means they are a threat to the ruling Communist Party.
People’s Daily, a party mouthpiece, has accused student leaders in Hong Kong of being political tools of pro-democracy forces and wants them to return quietly and peacefully from their street campaigns.
This shows the communist leadership is prepared to do whatever it takes to stop anti-Beijing sentiment from spreading beyond school campuses.
In Taiwan this year, student protesters forced the government in Taipei to shelve a cross-strait service trade agreement they said was an attempt to strengthen China’s economic influence on the island.
And the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen movement led to a shakeup in the communist leadership, although it ended in a bloody suppression that left scores of protesters dead.
This time, Hong Kong students are taking on the establishment and holding Beijing to its promises regarding democracy.
Thirty years ago, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed to pave the way for Hong Kong’s return to China, Hong Kong students had high hopes for its democratic development.
Those hopes were dashed after Sunday’s announcement of the election reform proposal.
It won’t be easy to get Beijing to change its mind and the students may end up not achieving any of the goals of their movement.
But if nothing else, they will help advance a core Hong Kong value of openness, fairness and justice. Rather than take an unfair electoral system, they’ll go down fighting it, and they want the world to know why.
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