24 August 2019
Student leaders Joshua Wong and Alex Chow  mark the first month of the street protests  with a symbolic unfolding of yellow umbrellas last week. Photo: HKEJ
Student leaders Joshua Wong and Alex Chow mark the first month of the street protests with a symbolic unfolding of yellow umbrellas last week. Photo: HKEJ

Here’s what makes the student movement a potent force

The two student groups driving the democracy protests have emerged as a potent force with their tenacity in fighting for genuine democracy.

With growing public support, student activist group Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) will continue to play a key role in the run-up to the 2017 chief executive election.

In contrast, professional politicians and political parties are seen less positively by Hong Kong people, according to a survey by the University of Hong Kong.

HKFS and Scholarism took first and fifth place, respectively, in a ranking of the top 10 players in the democracy movement, largely in line with public perceptions about their performance in the six-week-old protests.

The survey was conducted before student representatives announced plans to visit Beijing to take the democracy campaign directly to the central authorities and did not reflect their proposal for mass resignations by lawmakers to trigger an election.

Unlike traditional pro-democracy politicians who have often clashed with the pro-establishment camp, the student leaders have no political baggage.

This fact, coupled with their youthful energy and fresh ideas, gives them the courage to face up to the authorities in Beijing.

Last month’s talks with a government panel, although short-lived and unsuccessful, showed the students’ political maturity beyond their years. Their conduct was the kind required in political bargaining.

Ironically, this is also the kind of skill set that makes them dangerous in the minds of Beijing politicians. More than once, the central government has called the student protesters a threat to national security.

That said, not everyone in Hong Kong agrees with the students’ call for a walkout by pan-democrat lawmakers.

Some of their backers have admonished them about getting into political machinations, urging them to focus on the larger campaign — public nomination of candidates for the 2017 election and true universal suffrage.

The students’ argument is that a legislative revolt will force an election that could be a proxy referendum on the democracy movement.

They expect an overwhelming response that could pressure Leung Chun-ying into caving to their demand that he persuade Beijing to rethink its proposed election framework.

And they say a proxy referendum would be the most direct way to gauge public sentiment because Hong Kong’s election model of sectoral representation precludes such an outcome.

Such a complicated process could lead to unintended consequences and no one can be certain if the very public the students is counting on will go along.

Ordinary citizens have put up with disruptions to their daily lives from the street occupation by the protesters. There are signs of growing impatience.

If the student leaders decide to bring the protest to a sensible endgame — as former governor Chris Patten has suggested — it won’t mean they’re giving up the fight.

They will remain the heart and soul of the movement for the foreseeable future.

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EJ Insight writer

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