It’s another day of blue skies and sunshine here at USC. Students stroll to class as bikes whiz past in a blur. Cathie So, a first-year physics graduate student, makes her way down Trousdale Parkway amid the morning rush. As she scans the brick-paved roads of Troy, her newfound home of nearly half a semester, her thoughts can’t help but flicker back to the roads of another city, one near and dear to her heart. In Hong Kong, 7,236 miles away, those streets too are alive with the chatter of students. But something sets them apart.
For more than a month now, tens of thousands have braved cold nights and sweltering days on Hong Kong’s bustling streets, yellow ribbons pinned against black T-shirts in solidarity, umbrellas ready to be used at a moment’s notice as shields from the sting of tear gas. These scenes capture the cries of a city, the bleeding hearts of a generation that has risked everything — from the searing haze of pepper spray to the possibility of imprisonment — for a better future where true democracy and universal suffrage constitute not the stuff of dreams, but the roots of a new reality.
Though the Hong Kong protests officially began on Sept. 28, tensions were already building in the months leading up to them. The last straw came on Aug. 31, when China announced it would grant Hong Kong’s citizens “universal suffrage” for the 2017 chief executive election, but under one condition: The people of Hong Kong only be allowed to choose from two or three candidates pre-selected by the Chinese government. Decried as an outright sham, the ruling drove demonstrators of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Scholarism and Occupy Central with Love and Peace — many of them college and high school students — to the streets in one of the world’s most peaceful protests. In later weeks, police brutality and caustic anti-Occupy Central demonstrators — not to mention mounting frustration and impatience among citizens at the impasse with government officials — have fueled an increasingly volatile atmosphere.
Soon after tear gas was unleashed on thousands of peaceful protesters on Sept. 28, So and five other USC students came together to form USC for Democracy in Hong Kong, an organization that aims to spread awareness about the protests and show solidarity for student protesters.
“There are many personal friends of our members who are there in Hong Kong now at the protests,” said So, who serves as one of the organization’s members. “We don’t feel the pressure the same way they do, but we can show them that someone else in the world doesn’t want them to give up.”
Despite being a nascent student organization, the group now boasts more than 30 members. It hosted its first tabling event on Oct. 6 to raise awareness on campus. Photos of members and passersby holding posters emblazoned with messages addressed to the students in the protests were shared on Facebook and with online media outlets in Hong Kong. The group also helps the Hong Kong Forum – Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting democracy and human rights in Hong Kong and China, make banners for various rallies held in downtown Los Angeles.
So stressed that Hong Kong’s past is integral to understanding the protests.
“Many people already have an idea of what’s happening in Hong Kong, but they just don’t know the history behind [it],” she said. “They know the students are fighting for democracy, they know there’s a protest, they know the police is using too much force — but they don’t really know the background of all of this.”
From the time of its establishment as a small fishing port ceded to Britain to its return to China in 1997 as a financial powerhouse, Hong Kong has always been the pawn of an empire. An agreement for a 50-year adjustment period to mainland rule was drawn up, with the “one country, two systems” policy promising the territory a high degree of autonomy from Beijing. Many take China’s stringent ruling as a backtrack on that promise.
“We get to vote, but we don’t get to nominate or control who gets nominated, so until that gets done, our organization will remain,” So said.
Calvin Chau, a senior majoring in business administration, is also a core member of USCDHK. Like So, he believes that the protests have shown Hong Kong’s younger generations that civil disobedience is a viable path toward a better system.
“China’s a different story, but Hong Kong is absolutely ready for [democracy] — it was ready 20 years ago,” Chau said. “Before this movement, people were reluctant to go against the authority to fight for their rights, but right now, they’ve completely changed their minds, especially among the youngsters.”
For students from Hong Kong following the movement from abroad, however, the experience is bittersweet.
“It’s so easy to feel helpless, I think, when you’re so far away, because other than gathering with other Hong Kongers and talking about it, what can you really do?” said Michelle Toh, a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. “I have friends who go to university in Hong Kong. My friend’s parents almost got tear-gassed the night that they started unleashing pepper spray on protesters and everything. It’s just really shocking to see, and I think that everybody has become a lot more homesick and felt much more of an affinity to what they didn’t even realize could be taken away.”
Thirty-three years remain until Hong Kong reverts to full Chinese governance. The trajectory toward 2047 is a particularly troubling issue for the Hong Kong youth, who will inherit the new political reality. Many Hong Kong citizens have voiced concern that the central government has already begun eroding freedoms — including an independent judiciary and open press — that make the city unique in an undemocratic country.
Of those concerns, the biggest fear seems to be the uncertainty surrounding the 50-year agreement — what it entails, and what will become of the city when it expires. With the help of the Political Student Assembly, Jessie Chen, a senior majoring in international relations, organized “The Future of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’” a forum held on Oct. 13 at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, to discuss the road ahead for Hong Kong.
Chen, who lived in Hong Kong for 18 years before coming to USC, found that many students here weren’t even aware of the demonstrations.
“It was all over my Facebook newsfeed, but when I asked other people who had never lived Hong Kong or had any experience there, they didn’t know about it at all,” Chen said. “So the point of the panel discussion wasn’t necessarily to pick a side, argue for a side, to advocate for democracy or advocate for the other side, or anything. I really just wanted people to know about it.”
The USC International Relations Undergraduate Association and the Student Coalition for Asian Pacific Empowerment also co-hosted a discussion about Occupy Central on Oct. 7.
Though no actual student group against the pro-democracy movement has appeared on campus, a Facebook page titled “USC Anti-Occupy Central Pro-Democracy Organization” sprung up soon after USCDHK was formed. At other campuses, tensions have mounted as well. Toh said she talked to a friend at Wellesley College who told her that the Oct. 1 campaign “Wear Yellow for Hong Kong,” started by Harvard University student Heather Pickerell, was decried by Wellesley’s Chinese Students’ Association, whose members felt that the campaign was anti-China.
To Toh, the animosity seems uncalled for, especially at a time when division can be especially dangerous.
“So many people are now thinking that autonomy necessarily means that we want to break away from China, but that’s not what we’re saying,” Toh said. “It’s important to stay united, especially among students who are of the same age and probably value a lot of the same things.”
Though Hong Kong will eventually settle back into the daily grind, the issues with the central government and its grip on Hong Kong’s destiny will not be forgotten. As Chau said, “The end of this stage of occupation [might be] a retreat, but it’s definitely not a sign of surrender.”