May 28, 2009|
Most everyone in Hong Kong is familiar with the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Thousands of students and intellectuals gathered peacefully in the Square for weeks to demand a better China with more justice, democracy and less corruption. But on June 4, all their hopes were crushed—thousands were killed when the army cleared out the square. It is a day that will be long remembered for its tragic events, but it’s also a significant milestone in the history of student movements in China.
One would think Hong Kong would have a healthy student movement today, owing to the freedoms we enjoy. Indeed in the past, student movements were active and frequent—in the 60s and 70s, student groups led rallies against the colonial government, some of which turned into dangerous riots. And of course, in the lead-up to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, university students here led rallies in support of their counterparts in Beijing.
But now, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the massacre, many are questioning the direction of local student movements. University of Hong Kong student leader Ayo Chan recently made statements saying the violent suppression in 1989 could have been avoided if the students had dispersed peacefully, and called the murder of thousands of unarmed civilians only “a little problem.” Meanwhile at the City University, a student union was trying to stop its editorial board from publishing a leaflet about the massacre, worrying that it would be provocative and could “cause violence.” All of a sudden, it seems like the student leaders of our city have sided with the establishment, where their predecessors sided with the people.
Many question whether the current student leaders, who were merely toddlers when the 1989 crackdown happened, lack an understanding of the event, or have a skewed view of it owing to lack of education. Ayo Chan told us that he is fully aware of what happened at the massacre, but that he stands by his remarks and that he won’t censor himself. “We should ask,” he said, “if the leader of a student body needs to be politically correct.”
This only emphasizes the bigger question: what lies ahead for our student movements, and do they see themselves playing a different role than they have traditionally?
We spoke to Gloria Chang, the former student leader from Hong Kong University who successfully brought down the university’s president Cheng Yiu-chung in 2000. She says, “It’s not just about whether or not the board of student unions is into creating a student movement. It also depends just as much on the current situation of the society.” At the time Chang began her movement, there was widespread discontent in society with the handling of Sars and the Tung Chee-hwa administration. “So when we began our fight for academic freedom,” Chang explains, “everything just came together.”
But of course the general outlook of the whole student body is important as well. Chan Kai-fung is a member of the editorial board of the City University, and he thinks the majority of students today only want to see concrete benefits, such as what kind of activities can be organized, or what kind of discounts they can get. Taking part in a broader social movement would be a bonus.
Prominent student activist Christina Chan is a postgraduate student at Hong Kong University who successfully campaigned for a no-confidence vote to oust Ayo Chan from his chairmanship position. Her efforts last year to support a free Tibet movement were also widely reported in the press. She thinks life for students of this generation is too demanding, and they have less time to participate in social movements. “We have a lot of expectations to fulfill, and there are plenty of distractions already,” she says.
When we asked Christina Chan if she has any plans to join student organizations, she said she doesn’t want to be involved with their politics and there is “too much administrative work” on top of that. “People are way too careful,” she says. “And the atmosphere might be too conservative to get anything accomplished.” Even Gloria Chang says that many student unions have inevitably lost some of their significance. “There are more platforms now to voice your opinion. And unlike in the past, when joining a student union was the only way to get a certain kind of exposure, one can easier find a wide audience now thanks to the rapid information flow of the internet.” Chang also laments that many people will not have the experience of participating in the frontline.
But these developments don’t really mean the end of the student movement, although they may be evolving. “A lot of us do care about what’s going on,” says Christina Chan. “I was quite surprised by our efforts to impeach Ayo Chan. I thought we wouldn’t get a lot of support, because our campaign posters were constantly torn down. It also shows us that even though we’re young, the June 4th massacre can never be forgotten.”
Education sector legislator Cheung Man-kwong is not worried about the future of student movements. “As long as there is social injustice, there will be a group of people fighting for equality. The spirit of June 4 is to fight for democracy and justice. As long as there is social conflict, the drive for justice will never die.
Also see: Or Is It Our Schools?