If the government thinks that the recent jailing of prominent youth leaders for illegal assembly would silence Hong Kong’s youth and erode their democratic ideals, two separate incidents at the opening of the new academic year should serve as a reminder that the flame of freedom in their hearts is far from extinguished.
As classes opened, a secondary school student in Tin Shui Wai urged her schoolmates not to abandon their independent mindset even as authorities aim to establish a harmonious society, while at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, large banners calling for Hong Kong independence appeared around the campus.
These may be isolated incidents, but they reflect the ardent spirit of independence and freedom among Hong Kong students.
Beijing is urging the Hong Kong SAR government to incorporate patriotic education into the school curriculum, which seeks to establish respect and loyalty to the Communist Party of China among local students, but it would be wise for the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resist such pressure if indeed her goal to heal the divisions in society.
On Monday, as CUHK students started the new school year, a Goddess of Democracy statue stood near the University railway station. It was wrapped with a banner on which were written the names of youth activists either jailed or facing prosecution for their pro-democracy activities.
The student union said it wanted the students to remember that some Hong Kong people are in prison or are being “suppressed by the government for their political views”.
Students would stand on the side of justice “no matter what the cost”.
But what really caught the attention of everyone were at least three large black banners bearing the words “Hong Kong independence” in Chinese and English put up around the campus.
The banners were quickly removed by university staff, although pictures of the banners had circulated faster on the internet.
No individuals or groups have claimed responsibility for the protest act, but the black banners were a clear reminder that the academe remains a fertile ground for those calling for genuine democracy in the city, despite warnings from top Beijing officials that they would not tolerate any activity that would promote the idea of independence.
In reaction to the display of defiance, Prof. Joseph Sung, CUHK’s outgoing vice-chancellor, said the university’s students enjoy freedom of the speech and the school administration wouldn’t take any action against activities that are legal.
“If they have an opinion to express it should be done in a legal and also in a peaceful manner,” Sung was quoted as saying.
Of course, university officials are expected to adopt a liberal stance toward student activism, but their focus on legalities betrays the extent to which they are willing to tolerate or join the fight for democracy.
Students themselves know that this emphasis on what is legal has been used against them to quell their protests and to prevent them from expressing ideas that are too radical for the establishment to take.
Hong Kong students, who are deeply committed in fighting for the freedoms that the city has been enjoying, now find themselves being squeezed from all sides. Soon, they will run the risk of being punished for not singing the national anthem properly in a public event.
In Tin Shui Wai, a secondary school student called on her schoolmates to stand firm in their beliefs and to always speak the truth.
A video of her speech, delivered during the schooling opening ceremony last week, was uploaded on the internet. It drew more than 10,000 views and was shared widely on social media.
In her speech, she called on fellow students not to bother too much about being a decent person who always plays within the rules, but to be brave enough to voice out the truth.
She cited the case of political prisoners, who were not decent people in the eyes of the authorities because they engaged in civil disobedience to fight for what they thought was right.
Young people, she said, should uphold their core values without fear.
After her speech went viral on social media, pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po published stories on the background of the student’s teacher, who is a member of pro-democracy Professional Teachers’ Union.
The report cites the teacher’s social media posts to stress his clear anti-government stance on several controversial issues and concludes that a teacher with such a background should have no place in the school.
Beijing, with the help of the SAR government, wants to win over the youth and make them loyal to the Communist Party and its rule. And that’s the reason why it wants to establish patriotic education in Hong Kong’s school system.
But the youth will not acquiesce to such state of affairs, they will not tolerate any attempts to diminish their freedoms and independent thinking.
As Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung said, the government is acting like an authoritarian regime. It cannot stand young people with independent thinking and ideals.
And so “the first mission of today’s regime is to directly annihilate those young people with ideals”, Cheung said.
But those young people will not just allow the regime to do so without a fight.
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