This time of year, millions of students are moving to colleges and universities across the United States. They prepare for their classes, settle into their housing, reunite with old friends and prepare to make new connections. Though this time can be daunting for new students, it remains mostly shaped by optimism toward the expansive new opportunities awaiting these young adults. Yet as these Americans enter what will hopefully be a positive chapter in their lives, students half a world away are combatting a different, harrowing reality.
In Hong Kong, mass protests have roared on since late March against an amendment to a law that many Hong Kong citizens believe created a dangerous precedent for tyranny. The amendment in question would have allow for accused criminal offenders in Hong Kong to be extradited to China for trial, where they will likely convicted.
Opponents say the bill would essentially grant China the ability to detain whomever they view as threatening dissidents to the Communist Party and bring them to China to face a bleak fate. They fear that mainland China is making advances to break their agreement that allows Hong Kong to live under its own political and economic policies.
Within days of the amendment’s passage, thousands rallied in Hong Kong to demand its repeal, with the numbers of protesters growing past one million demonstrators. Among the large crowds are high school and college students, many of whom have taken leadership roles in the demonstrations. Though supported by their fellow activists, these students have been especially susceptible to threats against their lives and the lives of their families. Messages posted online and in city streets by individuals and organized groups have told students that they must stop protesting if they do not wish to see their loved ones harmed. Some threats have included the public posting of young protesters’ addresses and full names of students and their family members, warning them to stop their activity against the Hong Kong government and promising violence otherwise.
The heavy involvement by college-age Hong Kong citizens in these pro-democracy protests is not without precedent. In 2014 the Umbrella Revolution in favor of democracy for Hong Kong took place. One of its youngest and most influential members, Nathan Law, was an undergraduate student at the time. Now he is one of the faces of the movement to oppose the extradition bill and China’s interference in Hong Kong’s political affairs. Though the Umbrella Revolution saw minimal victories, the involvement of Law and other voices has helped create a culture of student activism in Hong Kong. He believes that most young adults in Hong Kong share his vision for greater transparency, the elimination of corruption and the growth of democracy.
While the 2014 protests saw some concessions by the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong, and the current protests are still ongoing, the history of student activism against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) policies is quite dark. The most impactful chapter took place in June 1989 at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. June 3 and 4 marked the height of protests by students and young adults throughout China in favor of increased individual liberties and against rampant corruption within the CCP government. In response to the mass protests, the most visible of which was held in Tiananmen Square, CCP officials decided to crush the demonstrations by force. After crowds of citizens originally prevented the military from reaching Tiananmen Square, tanks rolled in and forced protesters to flee, while Chinese forces fired upon those who continued to resist and those running for their lives. An official death toll has not been released, but some lists estimate the toll at 10,000 dead. The United States is still pushing China to release the lists of those who were killed and went missing in those tragic events.
The Tiananmen Square massacre, which the CCP defends to this day, caused a widespread fear of protesting against the authoritarian government in Beijing. With the proliferation of the Chinese regime’s surveillance technology, fears of being recognized, threatened, killed, detained or labeled a dissident by the government are a real concern to the protesters. These young people, who are simply trying to preserve the autonomy that China agreed to grant them in 1997, are scared for their loved ones and themselves. Yet they continue their efforts in the face of a Hong Kong legislature that is greatly manipulated by Beijing and its sympathizers within the city leadership.
The polar juxtaposition of the current realities for students in the United States and in Hong Kong is shocking and should make young Americans across the country feel incredibly fortunate. They can carry on full time with their education and mostly live free, uninterrupted lives. Though they may approve or disapprove of their national or state governments, their activism is allowed to continue and their speech remains free. The U.S. Constitution, complete with an expansive Bill of Rights and a checks and balances systems, assures their leaders never attain totalitarian power like the CCP. They live under a democratic system that gives them direct influence in choosing the leadership in their political system. It is no coincidence that in search of inspiration in their fight for freedom, demonstrators have been seen waving the United States flag and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
These are privileges that are easy to simply take as facts of life for an American college student. However, the students of Hong Kong are not so lucky. Thirty years after one of the most brutal repressions of protest in history, aimed at students by the same authoritarian forces, these courageous young men and women are risking the freedom they still have to demand the freedom they deserve.
This fact should cause us to cherish the freedoms we hold as students in the U.S., and bring our attention to what is happening across the globe. The demonstrators in Hong Kong deserve our admiration, respect, support and — if possible — assistance. At the very least, we should not take for granted the liberty which we have, and which they seek so desperately.
Noah Ente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.