Written by Jaco (2012 Chinese orientation booklet)

Translated by Houyuan

The Sixties: Dawn of the ‘Fiery Red Years’

Student activism in British Hong Kong was largely fueled by nationalistic sentiments. Upset with the status quo, students adopted an anti-colonial attitude. For instance, students formed the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands in response to the 1971 Protect Diaoyu or Baodiao Movement (保釣運動), a social movement in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong protesting against the U.S. backed Japanese claim of sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands, which is still a widely disputed topic to date [1]. The students boycotted Japanese goods and frequently protested at the Consulate General of Japan in Hong Kong, with the latter resulting in seven students arrested. The 1966 Star Ferry riots [2] and the 1971 movement to support visually impaired workers are examples that reflect the students’ active involvement in social issues and their patriotism. 

However, students from the ‘Fiery Red Years’ still held different stances on certain issues. They can be divided into two parties according to their political ideologies: the Patriotic and the Social Factions. These two factions were first seen in 1973. During August of the same year, students started a movement and held multiple public forums and a campaign of combating corruption and nabbing Peter Godber, Chief Superintendent of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, who had fled after being convicted of corruption [3]. Several students were arrested without proper justification during the gatherings, to which the academia responded with a campaign: “corruption’s a crime, gathering’s not”]. This forced the government to finally address the issue by establishing the Special Commission of Inquiry for investigation, which later became the Independent Commision Against Corruption (ICAC). Godber was successfully extradited back to Hong Kong. Following the incident, the students started a series of discussions surrounding anti-colonialism, in which topics concerning Hong Kong’s future and its relationship with China led to a divergence of opinions, marking the formation of the Patriotic and Social Factions.

The Early Seventies: Rise of the Patriotic Faction

The Nationalists were the predominant group among students during the early seventies. At that time, the Cultural Revolution took mainland China by storm, and many students felt a calling from President Mao and formed the Patriotic Faction. They truly believed in Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Nationalists were also leftists; they believed that socialism in China had plenty of policies worth studying. Their end goal was for Hong Kong to return to socialist China, hence they eagerly promoted patriotism and socialism in Hong Kong. Starting from 1971, students from all universities organized tour groups to mainland China, providing students an opportunity to experience their motherland in person, and to thoroughly understand its vision. The students used mainland China’s policies as a reference to critically reflect on Hong Kong’s own geo-political situation and suggested areas for improvement. Another impact of these tours was that universities began starting China study societies to discuss affairs in and development of China. In March 1975, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (FS, 學聯) declared the manifesto/doctrine for student activism: “Develop a global vision, Recollect a national identity, Be social-minded, Fight for civil rights” and re-established that Hong Kong is an inseparable part of China. The Student Union and Student Press in Chinese University were all led by students from the Patriotic Faction, and was described as [a Red field], it was the peak of CUHK’s national identity recognition movement. Additionally CUHK Student Union (CUSU) co-hosted a conference “China’s Road to Democracy” (中國民主之路) with HKU Student Union, aiming to reflect on China’s political situation. 

Furthermore, due to their socialist belief, students in the Patriotic Faction were active in social services and advocated for minority rights. Students from different universities came together and formed the Hong Kong College Student Social Service Team (香港大專學生社會服務隊). Their community services included building houses for Chinese refugees entering British Hong Kong, as well as constructing roads and bridges for remote villages, imitating what the progressive youths of China (進步青年) had done. Other examples of the students’ sense of social responsibility can be seen when students volunteered in the disaster relief of the 1972 landslides (六.一八雨災); in 1969, students gathered in front of the gates of Chu Hai College and meditated in protest against the school for threatening student’s freedom of speech and expelling 12 students who exposed the school’s dogmatic policies. 

1976: The Fall of the Patriotic Faction

Apart from the more popular Patriotic Faction, the Socialist Faction also had its place in past student movements. The Socialists were against colonialism and capitalism, they regarded social reforms as their mission and believed that student movements should focus on responding to immediate social issues in Hong Kong. However, the Socialist Faction did not believe in China’s socialism. In 1974, they criticized the Patriotic Faction for emphasizing too much on China’s socialism in the Inflation Exhibition held during a protest against the increase in prices. They claimed the Patriotic Faction did not follow the student movement’s anti-colonial principles, complaining that they used the worker’s hard-earned labour money for exhibition and distributed leaflets solely for demonstration purposes. Other than the two major parties, there were also the Trotskyists who advocated for a global revolution and other less popular parties. However, no matter how the Socialists and other parties competed against the Nationalists, the political trend was still left-oriented.

Unfortunately, a hero is often a product of their times. In 1976, the downfall of the Gang of Four (四人帮) marked the end of the Cultural Revolution, and consequently, the Patriotic Faction lost their ideological support and began going down hill. Since then, the student’s admiration towards Mao and the CCP was no more. The Nationalists no longer organise movements, so student activism began to adopt the Socialist Faction’’s stance and address colonial issues in Hong Kong. For example, in May 1978, the academia defended Golden Jubilee Secondary School students (何文田金禧中學, now known as St. Teresa Secondary School) who were protesting against the school’s corruption, CUHK and HKU published a magazine in collaboration to report the truth. A year later, the newly appointed principal intentionally picked on students and staff who uncovered the corruption, which ended in the school being closed by the Education Bureau. In order for students from Golden Jubilee Secondary to continue receiving education, university students started tuition classes in CUHK and HKU, and discussed future plans with the student and staff, finally, they successfully arranged the staff and student to teach and study in Ng Yuk Secondary School. In the end, the downfall of the Patriotic Faction no doubt lessened the passion in later student movements and the blazing enthusiasm from the ‘Fiery Red Years’ were never to be seen again. 

The Eighties: On the Path to Democracy

As the first wave of student activism started fading, the eighties were a transition period for student activism. Students began supporting the democratization of China; for example, in 1982, the 13th CUSU cabinet wrote in their party platform: “We sincerely hope that China’s future development could head towards the path of democracy.” Despite that students at the time no longer single-mindedly supported the CCP, they remained patriotic and believed that they were responsible to discuss and reflect the future development of China and Hong Kong. The Social Faction had laid down the foundations for the progress of student activism: the students were no longer anti-capitalist, instead, they began to yearn for democracy. 

1985 was the crucial negotiation period between Britain and China concerning the sovereignty of Hong Kong. The Basic Law Drafting Committee was formed for the occasion, and its Consultative Committee expressed that the Federation of Students could recommend two representatives. However, CUHK and several other universities would rather forgo the two seats than give up the principles of democracy,  the students insisted that the two representatives should be elected through public voting, where everyone has a vote in their hands. After the first draft of the Basic Law was published, CUHK Student Union, the Student Press, and student unions from all colleges started a movement “One person, one letter” (一人一信), suggesting that the Basic Law should be amended as: “75% of the legislators should be directly elected, while the rest should be elected from the functional constituencies; the decision of the Chief Executive should undergo territory-wide public nomination and election.” In February 1990, the Basic Law was finalised, the academia started a demonstration and went on strike against it, several hundred students participated in a sit-in at CUHK, and yet, they were unable to change the outcome.

1989: A Deciding Blow

Even if the eighties’ student movements were no longer as engaged as in earlier days, they were still relatively active compared to now. The last remaining shining star of student activism at that time was the ’89 Democracy Movement. At the early stages of the ’89 Democracy Movement, the CUHK Student Union and other universities were fully supporting students in Beijing, they sent representatives to Beijing, students in CUHK even voluntarily formed the CUHK Student Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (中大學生支援愛國民主運動聯委會), commending Beijing student’s demand for democracy. The students had seemingly regained the enthusiasm from the ‘Fiery Red Years’, starting sit-in after sit-in, demonstrations after demonstrations. Everyone firmly believed that democracy would return victorious. Alas, on the morning of 4 June, the students fell to the bloodstained suppression from Beijing authorities, completely rupturing the relationship between the academia and the central government. After the incident, university students followed political affairs surrounding China and Hong Kong more closely, but the enthusiasm could not be maintained.

The Nineties: Transformation of Student Activism

Student movement in the 90s focused more on local social issues. However, most of the resistance and protests were disrupted by the police under the Public Order Ordinance, which often ended in conflict between the protesters and the police, hence the main characteristics of the student movements was ‘civil disobedience’ [4].

Ever since 1989, the Federation of Students only ‘notified’ the authority instead of ‘applying for permission’ when they organised demonstrations, which challenged police authority. In November 1991, about 20 CUHK students were stopped by the police when they were protesting at the venue for National Day reception, some students were even injured as the police initiated contact and “pressed” on the students. In June 1992, the police selectively charged the former secretary-general of the Federation of Students Richard Tsoi Yiu Cheong, Andrew To Kwan Hang, Adeline Wong Ching-man, and another civilian with unlawful assembly, violating Section 18 of the Public Order Ordinance [5]. However, the truth is that although they did join the demonstration at the Xinhua News Agency after the June 4 vigil, the three FS members were not the organisers of said rally. In June 1993, numerous student organisations and NGOs who were concerned about the Public Order Ordinance held a demonstration in protest of the government’s lack of amendment for the ordinance. In June 2000, the FS held a demonstration to commemorate the one year anniversary of the first interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, students sat-in in front of the Central Government Offices but faced police expulsion, including being punched and sprayed with pepper spray at a close distance. In September of the same year, the police arrested five FS members and 11 people who were applying for the right of abode in Hong Kong under the Public Order Ordinance. The arrested members included the Chair of CUHK Student Union Fung Kai Yuen and the former managing editor of the CUHK Student Press Derek Chu Kong Wai; they were then prosecuted.

The Present Day in the 21st Century: Student Activism is Dead

Sadly, those movements after the ’89 Democracy Movement were mere flickering lights; they were at most a dimming ember struggling to shine. The aforementioned “student movements” were usually a group of students who felt a need to speak up, were organised by the FS, and started certain movements. As more and more political parties sprung up in recent years, most social issues already have a specific organisation dedicated to work on them. Most of the time students were only participating in activities held by other groups instead of addressing the issue as a student, which is not the same as student activism. This problem was considerably prominent after the millennium: during the 2003 protest against the implementation of the Basic Law Article 23 [6], the student’s involvement was solely participatory, although there were few demands made from a student’s perspective, the student’s participation was essentially the same as protesting as a civilian. In the 2009 anti-Hong Kong Express Rail Link movement, most students joined individually, but did not voluntarily organise a rally. These incidents reflect that most students still have a strong sense of citizenship, yet they were not contributing to the development of student activism. In the end, student activism after the 2000s was nearly nonexistent. 

After the ’89 movement, the climate in academia had changed significantly. Students in Hong Kong had spiked from 2% of Hong Kong’s population to 18%, the ubiquity of university students made graduating from higher education seem trivial. Under this capitalist society, the current salary for an undergraduate is barely over HKD$ 10,000 (as of 2012), so students became extra practical: they entered universities to get a job after graduation, and social responsibility was lost in the process. In addition, current university student’s organizational ability has much to be desired in comparison to earlier days, alongside with various other reasons, a large-scale student movement is yet to be seen for the past decade.

Closing Remarks

It is not true to say that current university students do not care a bit about society […]. Even though university students are no longer considered as elites, it does not mean we do not need to continue defending our rights. If we remain silent when the moment has arrived, the darkest days will not remain far away. Back in the days when CU students insisted on keeping the four-year study period and continued using Chinese as the medium of instruction, the fighting spirit came from the firm position where no one would back down. Finally, if one day we as students want to make great contributions to society, the duty lies on the shoulders of you and I. [7]

◆*.◆*.◆*.◆*.◆*. ◆*.◆*.◆*.◆*.◆*.◆*.◆*.◆*.

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are neither endorsed by, nor representative of the views of the translator and editors. Translated articles are included to fulfil the section of our platform stating that translated “articles will be selected based on their relevance to the theme of the English edition or on the value of the perspective they have to offer to our readers. Translated articles are critical to our mission because they contain local thought, culture and perspective.” Such translations should be read with curiosity for perspective and all claims to fact and interpretation should be critically considered by the reader. 

[1] This translation is directly from the original article. The translator and editors found some discrepancies between the original article and generally accepted historical facts: It was not until long after this movement that the United States backed Japanese sovereignty over the area and it never made any claims to the islands itself. We hope the readers can understand the perspective of the original author, and be reminded to read critically.

[2] The Star Ferry Riots escalated from a civil demonstration against the British colonial government’s decision to increase the fare of Star Ferry foot-passenger harbour crossing by 25 percent. 

[3] Godber had nearly HK$4.4 million under his name before retiring. 

[4] Civil disobedience is the refusal to obey the demands or commands of a government or occupying power, without resorting to violence or active measures of opposition; its usual purpose is to force concessions from the government or occupying power.

[5] Public Order Ordinance, Section 18: When 3 or more persons, assembled together, conduct themselves in a disorderly, intimidating, insulting or provocative manner intended or likely to cause any person reasonably to fear that the persons so assembled will commit a breach of the peace, or will by such conduct provoke other persons to commit a breach of the peace, they are an unlawful assembly.

[6] The Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23 states that Hong Kong “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”

[7] The last paragraph is abbreviated to be more relevant to the intended readers.


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