HONG KONG – They are dubbed the “umbrella generation” — teenaged students who have stormed the streets of Hong Kong in their tens of thousands and electrified a long-running protest campaign against Beijing’s attempts to control the financial hub.
Organized, determined and idealistic, they pose a major challenge to mainland China as they demand it gives them the freedom to nominate election candidates. China recently announced that it would not go that far.
“The kids took over,” said media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a key backer of pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong, tears welling up as he voiced his belief that they would succeed.
“It is very frightening for Beijing, but it is very cheering for us … this is our future,” he said.
The latest show of popular dissent represents one of the biggest threats to Beijing’s Communist Party leadership since its bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy student protests in and around Tiananmen Square.
Today’s young protesters are the first generation to grow up without direct memories of Tiananmen, an event still marked by an annual candle-lit vigil in Hong Kong.
Last week, students’ tightly choreographed, citywide boycott of classes escalated into arrests after the storming of a barricaded public space in the city’s Admiralty government quarter at the weekend and culminated in far wider demonstrations and public support.
As thousands of protesters confronted police at barriers to try to reach the students hemmed in at Admiralty, they were met with pepper spray, batons and, later, tear gas, as the unrest spread into the city’s glittering central financial district.
Hundreds of upturned umbrellas — protection against pepper spray but useless against tear gas — lay abandoned as young protesters retreated temporarily.
“Stay safe,” warned a twitter message on Sunday night from the Hong Kong Federation of Students, a 60,000-strong union of university students. “This is a long battle.”
For 17-year-old Joshua Wong, it has already been a lengthy fight.
Two years ago, with the help of secondary school activists calling themselves Scholarism, he forced the Hong Kong government to shelve plans to introduce a pro-China national education scheme in the city’s schools.
At its height, 120,000 people, parents and students alike, converged on government headquarters to push for the change.
“I hope I can have a better future and that I can have the right to choose my future in Hong Kong,” Wong said, with a self-belief that belies his bookish looks.
“It is true that we are students, but we are also citizens, so we can use action to change the policy of the government.”
Both Scholarism and the federation are using the Internet to spread their message and eschewing the more traditional banner-led marches.
“I always stress that our work and our protests have to be very eye-catching and visually attractive,” Wong explained.
“We need to (have) ‘fun’ and people need to ‘get a kick’ out of what we do so that we can attract attention.”
Wong was arrested with two other students after a group broke into Hong Kong’s Civic Square on Saturday, demanding it be re-opened to the public.
After 40 hours in police custody, he was released without charge or conditions.
His lawyers convinced a High Court judge that he had been held for an unreasonably long time and, on the steps of the central police station, Wong vowed to re-join the fight after a short rest. His two fellow activists have also been released.
Typically, student groups operate out of cramped and cluttered apartments, fueled by coffee and cans of soda. They are well-funded, with Scholarism collecting HK$1.2 million ($155,000) during a July 1 march alone.
They talk of being followed and worry about their phones being tapped, but remain defiant and speak openly of their mistrust of the Hong Kong and Beijing governments.
“I don’t believe this is because they don’t feel they are ‘Chinese’, and it is not because they dislike China as a country,” said Scholarism deputy leader Agnes Chow.
“But they feel that they cannot trust the government in power. I think this idea is undeniable.”
As protests spread into streets lined by some of Hong Kong’s most expensive real estate, black-shirted students distributing yellow ribbons are a common sight.
The Occupy Central movement that planned the latest civil disobedience campaign, backed by leading established Democrats many of whom are in their 60s and 70s, has acknowledged the students have stolen a march on them.
“We are touched by the works of students,” said Occupy founder Benny Tai, as he launched Occupy’s latest action several days earlier than planned because of the scale of the protests.
“I will even admit that we are late,” he added. “We should be ashamed of ourselves.”