Exams before militancy

May 17, 1996

Hong Kong's destiny may be setting in cement but most university students in the territory are less inclined than ever to leave their footprints on the path of Hong Kong's history.

While China was busy finalising plans this past month for the establishment of an appointed legislature and dissolution of the present democratically elected legislative council, most students were busy swotting.

The best way of securing their future, as they see it, is to graduate with good marks and get the best jobs. Those sitting in the university coffee shop, marking texts as they sip cappuccino between study immersion sessions, claim they have no time for current affairs, But a few students think differently. The night before China's appointed preparatory committee invited selected Hong Kong residents, including the Federation of Students, to express their views on the establishment of a provisional legislative council, fewer than a dozen students sat until dawn planning their protest against what they viewed as China's "phoney" consultations.

Rosa Mok, a second-year social work student and chief delegate of the University of Hong Kong to the Hong Kong Federation of Students, was among the protest planners.

Her classmates could not understand her priorities. "Some students don't know anything about the provisional legislature," she said in frustration. Ms Mok estimates that only about 20 students in Hong Kong are actively involved in student politics.

Indeed, there has been so little interest that five of Hong Kong's main universities failed this year to put up candidates for election to their student union bodies. Politics is a taboo topic among the students. "They are afraid to touch it," Ms Mok said.

It was not always so. John Burns, head of the department of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, is among those who have witnessed the depoliticisation of students.

Dr Burns recalls the 1960s and 1970s when leftists (pro-China activists) dominated student unions, vigorously supporting the motherland and simultaneously denouncing the colonial administration for social and economic injustices. Students led riots in the 1960s, including one, in which five people died, against the demolition of an illegal extension to a communist-affiliated school.

When the excesses of Maoism were exposed in the 1970s, the left lost its grip on student unions. By then, social reforms in Hong Kong had also modified student anger against the territory's British administrators.

Legislative councillor Christine Loh Kung-wai contends: "The colonial government bought a level of legitimacy by coming down strongly against corruption, improving the administration, introducing social reforms, and riding the crest of the economy."

Lo Chi-kin, a member of various Hong Kong official bodies including the Civic Education Commission, was a student activist in the mid-1970s. In those days, he belonged to the pro-China camp. "Student activists like us thought we were changing the social system and attitudes," said Ms Lo.

"There has been a big sea change in the past 20 years," he said. "It probably dates back to the signing (in 1984) of the Sino-British declaration when Hong Kong's fate was known." By the early 1980s when China had embarked on a free market economy with socialist characteristics, it no longer seemed different from other developing countries.

"To get rich was glorious which was nothing new here. Students began to look more critically at China," Dr Burns said.

"People began to ask 'If we're going back to the mainland, what exactly are we going back to?'" The Hong Kong Federation of Students, made up of student union representatives from all the tertiary academic institutions, had a smooth relationship with China's unofficial embassy in Hong Kong, the New China News Agency, until 1989. But in that year, the federation changed its platform from "support for China" to "concern for China and support for democracy".

The last time the agency officially approached the federation before inviting its representatives to the preparatory committee consultations was after the June 4 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Andrew To Kwan-hung, then executive secretary of the federation and one of the key student leaders who mobilised Hong Kong students to march in support of their Beijing counterparts, was asked if the federation had petitioned foreign embassies in Hong Kong to cease economic relations with China. He confirmed they had.

Mr To believes the agency invited the students to the consultations because "they didn't think there were any of us left". "Us" refers to democrats - people prepared to put themselves on the line for democracy.

Rosa Mok does not know why she is prepared to take action where others will not. It was around the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre that she began to devour newspapers.

She began to formulate the notion that only people with money and status had power and that this was not right.

Linda Wong, a law student and acting external affairs officer of the University of Hong Kong's student union, was one of the students who demonstrated their outrage against the preparatory committee's consultations when it met.

She attributes her concern to the influence of her English literature teacher in secondary school and the parallel that teacher drew between books such as George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Huxley's Brave New World and a potential future in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Ms Mok and fellow members of the student federation will continue to try to talk to other students and educate them about China's planned legislative body for the post-June 1997 Special Administrative Region.

They are planning activities to commemorate the anniversary of Tiananmen Square and hope to convince more students to take an active interest.

Unfortunately and perhaps not coincidentally, Victoria Park, where the students have gathered in the past to mark June 4, will be closed this year between June 1-5 for renovations. "We'll have to do something on the campuses in small groups," said Ms Mok. "It is like being forced underground."

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