23 October 2016
(From top right) Lo Chung-mau, Arthur Li and Lawrence Lau called the students (left) who demanded a conversation "radicals". Photo: HKEJ
(From top right) Lo Chung-mau, Arthur Li and Lawrence Lau called the students (left) who demanded a conversation "radicals". Photo: HKEJ

‘Radical’ student movements are a glorious Chinese tradition

Leung Chun-ying the new patriot has fired an old-line Beijing loyalist, and one of the major reasons, some have speculated, was that our youngsters have become disobedient, unpatriotic and pro-independence for Hong Kong under the watch of the now former home affairs minister.

People were curious to see how different Leung’s new youth policy would be.

Now we have the answer, thanks to the words uttered by Leung’s mob of heavies after students stormed the University of Hong Kong council meeting at the end of last month.

The protagonists in the saga are all professors and ostensibly senior intellectuals: Executive Council member Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, who is tipped to head the HKU council later this year; Lo Chung-mau, a HKU council member and head of the department of surgery; and Lawrence Lau Juen-yee, a former vice chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong whose wife, Ayesha Macpherson, a HKU council member, was reportedly intercepted by protesting students after the council meeting was suspended.

The trio have revealed their true colors: they are paternalistic, belligerent figures with a knee-jerk impulse to make a fuss when student action becomes “radical”.

Li accused the students of illegal detention, denouncing them for acting like the Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution.

But the truth that night was students demanded that council members stay to explain the delay in the appointment of a pro vice chancellor, which, as I see it, is no different from a teacher asking his pupils to stay behind after class.

Lau, having said that these youngsters must be “saved”, severely reprimanded them in an op-ed piece, calling them “bastards” and suggesting that they be jailed for a day or be required to perform 100 hours of community service as punishment.

I have to marvel at Lau’s choice of words.

As a former CUHK president, he is a rare figure from the intelligentsia who doesn’t mind hurling insults at our students (and their parents as well) in such a disgraceful manner.

Now, exactly how “radical” were these students who broke into the council chamber?

Let’s take a look at three major student-led movements in ancient China for perspective.

The first one took place in the late Western Han dynasty, two millennia ago.

Historical records show that an outspoken adviser was framed and subsequently sentenced to death by the emperor for urging anti-corruption reforms.

The sentence triggered a large protest by more than 1,000 students of the imperial academy.

The students went so far as to stop the top imperial official (roughly equivalent to the chief councilor) and his entourage, block the way to the royal palace and send petition letters to the emperor himself (put in today’s context, this would mean surrounding Zhongnanhai and applying pressure on the central authorities).

The emperor backed down and rescinded the death penalty.

The second such movement took place during the Song dynasty, when the empire was invaded by barbarians from the north.

The top ministers wanted to sue for peace and resorted to infighting to kick out those advocating resistance to the invaders.

Students at the imperial school staged a massive sit-in.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered at the entrance of the royal palace, demanding that the emperor vindicate and reinstate those who had been sacked.

The emperor eventually agreed to their requests.

The third movement, in the early Qing dynasty, ended in tragedy.

Top scorers in the imperial examination in Suzhou published an open denunciation of the corrupt county magistrate.

The provincial governor, who was also rotten to the core, was irritated by allegations of his complicity.

A crackdown was mounted on rallies and petitioning.

The protesters were expelled, and 18 of them were executed.

What really matters in any student movement — either today or hundreds or even thousands of years ago — is not whether it’s radical or not.

From the perspective of the authorities, of course, all such protests and other forms of disobedience are deemed radical, as they are a threat to vested interests.

What we can learn from the past is that student campaigns and the means they used were far more “radical” than the actions of the HKU students.

What these students, past and present, have in common is that they were upright intellectuals impelled by public morality who chose to assume the responsibilities of their time rather than escape them.

We can see this in the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in spring last year and similar student protests in Hong Kong throughout the past three years.

The local pundits who are urging students to focus only on their studies are either self-promoters or profoundly ignorant of history.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 6.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Students light up their mobile-phone screens outside the Hong Kong government offices and People’s Liberation Army garrison in Admiralty during a boycott of classes in September. Photo: Getty Images

HKU students hold placards outside the university council chamber in protest against the postponing of the appointment of a pro vice chancellor. Photo: Epoch Times

Students protest outside the central government’s liaison office in Sai Wan. Photo: Internet

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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