18 July 2018
Hong Kong University students have voted for their union to quit the Federation of Students amid unhappiness over the way the Occupy campaign was handled last year. Photo: Facebook
Hong Kong University students have voted for their union to quit the Federation of Students amid unhappiness over the way the Occupy campaign was handled last year. Photo: Facebook

HKU vote heralds more ‘localist’ campaigns

A Hong Kong University (HKU) students’ vote that has mandated their union to leave the Federation of Students has sparked questions about the likely fallout of the split in the local youth community.

While the debate will rage for some time, most observers say the HKU’s decision to break ranks with the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) reflects the discontent among students over the way in which the federation handled the Occupy protests last year, and disagreements on the way forward.

The development suggests growing support for the so-called localist movement that will focus more on upholding Hong Kong’s interests locally, rather than dealing with Beijing, they say.

In a week-long referendum among HKU students, 2,522 people voted in favor of leaving the HKFS, which had spearheaded the failed pro-democracy street occupation in 2014, while 2,278 voted against the proposal. Nearly 1,300 students abstained from the vote.

Many students had called for an exit from the HKFS, the long-standing umbrella body for the city’s youth, complaining about lack of transparency within the organization and the way it handled the Occupy movement.

While speculation abounds as to how the HKU vote was swung — some people see a hidden hand of the pro-Beijing camp — what is certain is that students have been increasingly questioning the strategy being adopted with regard to the fight for greater political freedoms in the city.

From students’ perspective, they should have the right to know how the HKU union works and how the committee members are positioned. 

A group that championed the referendum had argued that a break-up from the HKFS will help the HKU students union take a more aggressive stance on democratic reforms.  

While students mostly supported the Occupy campaign last fall, there has been criticism about the manner in which the protests were conducted.

Some people questioned the federation’s call for withdrawal from the Occupy zones before the police clearance operation began. Pulling out before achieving any concrete results was seen as a bad move.

And some students also said the federation’s decision to send a delegation to Beijing for talks was immature. The delegation returned to Hong Kong empty-handed after top mainalnd leaders refused to meet them. 

After the police cleared the protest sites in mid-December, HKU leaders such as Alex Chow and Yvonne Leung, who had been a part of the HKFS-led Occupy campaign, had been keeping a low profile.

Both the HKU and the HKFS have now failed to convince students about the need to stay with the federation. With last week’s vote, students have signaled that they want a more independent stance for the HKU, without being tied down by the federation’s China platform.

Traditionally, student unions at tertiary institutions have been mostly respecting the one China concept. In the 1970s and 80s, HKU students unions were playing a leading role in encouraging students to learn more about China, as Hong Kong readied for the 1997 handover.

However, the rise of the “localist” movement in recent times, which has seen discontent build over projects such as a cross-border high-speed rail link, as well as parallel-goods traders from China, has changed the focus of the students.

The emphasis now is more on “upholding the local interests”, rather than “aiming to change China in a democratic way”. 

Amid such agenda, some schools are planning to opt out of the annual vigil on June 4 — which marks the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre — this year, saying that such ceremony won’t do anything to protect Hong Kong interests.

Students say Hong Kong people have no obligation to change the Communist regime in China, and that they should instead focus their energies on maintaining the uniqueness of Hong Kong and preventing Beijing’s intervention in local affairs. 

What is clear is that many Hong Kong youth have begun to take a more aggressive stance with regard to the city’s autonomy, with a few even supporting the idea of independence from China.

In the meantime, observers fear tensions could grow between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students as local schools have been accepting more students from across the border.

Increased cross-border enrollment in local universities would eventually lead to more mainlanders seeking right of abode in Hong Kong, which would reduce the job opportunities for local youth, students fear.

Given concerns such as these, authorities in Hong Kong as well as Beijing have their task cut out to resolve the conflicts and uphold the “one country, two systems”.

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EJ Insight writer

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