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Queenie Lam: What’s going on in Hong Kong? Students’ role in the protests

Hong Kong’s faceless leaderless Be Water Movement, sparked off in early June by massive protests against a controversial extradition bill to enable the transfer of suspects to the mainland of China, has been roiling the city for over 100 days. In September, universities and schools in Hong Kong were at the forefront of a pro-democracy movement. The two-week class boycott was kicked off on 2 September with a sit-in of some 30 000 from 11 higher education institutions (HEIs), and a rally of over 4 000 from over 230 schools. On 9 September, secondary school students formed human chains, a student version of the Hong Kong Way inspired by the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way.
University leaders and school principals are under unprecedented pressure to maintain “political neutrality” as tensions increase. Ten university presidents issued a joint statement on 12 June to urge calm after young protesters stormed the Legislative Council. Few chose to openly side with the students and support their five demands, which are withdrawal of the extradition bill, independent inquiry of alleged police brutality, retraction on “riot” charges, amnesty for pro-democracy protesters, and universal suffrage. The cautiousness of the education leaders is in stark contradiction with the unprecedented student activism pushing for more accountability of the police force and ultimately universal suffrage, the promised democracy that Hong Kong youth expects China to deliver according to the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s mini constitution – the Basic Law. China, however, says that the Joint Declaration is a historical document that no longer has meaning, a comment disputed by the UK. Mainland Chinese media and officials portrayed the pro-democracy protests as separatist activities supported by foreign powers from the start, and gave their unwavering support to forceful police action to end the “budding terrorism” in the city state.
Different from the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, the Be Water Movement is global by nature as live streaming of the protests and contradictory facts presented by the police and protesters in their respective daily press conferences are witnessed real-time around the world, except mainland China. Using social media, activists have reached out to overseas Hong Kong students and diaspora who volunteer to organise global solidarity actions and counter online disinformation from state-sponsored propaganda. In English-speaking countries which host the vast majority of Hong Kong students (over 35 000), such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK, clashes between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong students were widely reported, involving sometimes interventions from the university and the state. Multiple reasons could explain such clashes, but many believe such counter-protests were results of the very different version of the facts around the Hong Kong protests, particularly the misperceived separatism that incites patriotic reactions from mainland Chinese, whose patriotic actions were openly commended by Chinese diplomats and state media.
Few open clashes were reported in European universities as the number of Hong Kong students is negligible in most countries, except the UK, and the protests were often organised outside campus. Organisers of the solidarity actions did report overt or covert harassments from mainland Chinese patriots and Chinese diplomats as reported in Germany and Lithuania. Even though the overseas protests are legally permitted, protesters have admitted fear of consequences when participating in such solidarity actions because ultimately they are dependent on the Chinese embassies for diplomatic support. Under the One Country Two Systems principle, Hong Kong is highly autonomous in all aspects, including external affairs but not diplomatic relations and defense. However, meetings of Hong Kong student activists with foreign politicians, such as the meeting between Joshua Wong and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, could still invite condemnation from Beijing as supporting Hong Kong “independence”. This has not deterred Hong Kong student activists from reaching out for international support. Elected student representatives from the city’s 12 HEIs formed the Hong Kong Higher Education International Affairs Delegation (HKIAD) in July and began their worldwide tours to rally international support from parliamentarians in western democracies, including the US, Australia, UK and Germany.  
Young people who are digital natives have been the backbone of the movement even before the class boycotts. A survey published on August 12 by four universities in the city found that the vast majority of the pro-democracy protesters are university-educated and almost half are in their twenties. As of the 100th day of the movement, following a series of mass arrests, 1 453 peopled were arrested, 176 were charged for protest-related offenses. Among those charged, 52 were students and 44 were charged for “rioting” which led to a rare protest of lawyers urging for an end to political persecution. Convicted rioting charges in Hong Kong can carry a 10-year prison sentence. Disproportionate sentencing is believed to be the reason supporting Germany’s granting of asylum to two young Hong Kong political refugees.
The waves of high-profile arrests, such as students found to have possessed “weapons” like laser pointers or a butter knife, and the low percentage of charges have incited white terror and deter protesters from participating in peaceful protests. In fact, most applications to stage a protest have been banned on safety grounds following a gangster attack on protesters and passersby on July 21.  
On September 4, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally announced to withdraw the bill. But the delayed withdrawal only met one of the five demands consolidated by the protesters in the course of the three-month struggles which were often met by brutal suppression of the police in violation of human rights. Tensions increase over time with more restriction on the right for legally permitted protests, thus more illegal assemblies, and increasing acts of violence that could be attributed to agitated hardcore protesters, infiltrated undercover police, or thugs.
In spite of the government’s urge to restore peace and order by clamping down on the violent perpetrators on one hand and to step up overseas publicity campaign on the other, safety concerns started to deter international visitors including exchange students.