Hong Kong Officials Call Off Talks With Protestors
UB faculty and students respond to ongoing pro-democratic protests
If Kayo Lee was home in Hong Kong, he’d be sitting on city’s streets baring an umbrella and fighting for freedom to vote without China’s influence.
The UB student and senior psychology major is doing his best to be part of the “Umbrella Revolution” while he is studying in Buffalo.
For about two weeks thousands of student protesters have camped out in some of Hong Kong’s busiest streets, using umbrellas as shields from police officer’s pepper spray and tear gas.
And now, the meeting with Hong Kong’s government officials protesters have been fighting for will not happen. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, told reporters in a conference Thursday that she regretted there will not be a meeting Friday.
The government refused to meet with protesters after leaders of the pro-democratic movement called on more supporters to return to the outdoor protests after numbers diminished this week.
“I am afraid that is making people’s daily lives into a bargaining chip for the meeting,” Lam said. “We cannot accept the linking of illegal activities to whether or not to talk.”
Although they are on the other side of the world and 12 hours behind the city, UB Hong Kong students, who have family and friends protesting, are passionate about what is going on in their home city. They believe the rest of the university should understand what is going on as well.
On Sept. 26, a pro-democracy protest broke out in Hong Kong. That weekend, the crowd gained momentum and soon, thousands of citizens gathered to protest the government.
“I’ve never seen Hong Kong people that united,” said Sarah Tse, a senior accounting major.
Hong Kong had been under British colonialism for 156 years and on July 1, 1997, the city was returned to China, known as the handover.
In the Sino-British Joint Declaration, China promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years after the return to China. This would allow Hong Kong to be self-governed for that time, which includes its ability to elect governing officials.
The agreement provided Hong Kong with universal suffrage, which is a democratic voting system, and a principle of “one country, two systems.”
The one country, two systems principle says within China, the Mainland will continue with its socialist political system, while Hong Kong will maintain the capitalist system.
China said Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive election would be free of Chinese interference. But on Aug. 31, China announced its own electoral committee would select candidates for the 2017 election.
Hong Kong citizens gathered in Admiralty, the central business district of Hong Kong, and started a pro-democracy demonstration to protest China’s actions.
Lee said the protesters just want to send a peaceful message to officials about what they want and why they are standing in the streets.
Vanessa Ho, a junior biomedical engineering major, said Hong Kong high school and college students are being criticized for participating in the protests because they are “too young” and their “only responsibility for now is to study.”
The protest has included study zones, where the students are able to catch up on homework.
Ho said the protests affect Hong Kong students in Hong Kong as well as those at UB because they are fighting for their own future. The elections for Chief Executive are in three years and by then, most Hong Kong students will be eligible to vote.
When people hear the word “protest,” they think of violence, Ho said. The protest in Hong Kong, however, is not like that at all and is, instead, “peaceful,” she said.
The event has been named the “Umbrella Revolution” because when police use pepper spray or tear gas, protestors use umbrellas to block against the attacks. Lee said the protestors will only stand there to protect themselves.
Tse said people not protesting are helping by bringing water or surgical masks to block the sprays and gasses. Taxi drivers have offered free rides to students after hearing they have come from the protest. Some have even given the students money so they could buy more food and water, she said.
Yanshu Li, a Ph.D. candidate and president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), said after he heard about the protests, he offered sympathy and condolences to the people of Hong Kong. He sent a letter through CSSA to the Hong Kong Student Association (HKSA) to let them know his group is concerned for the protestors.
“Maybe we cannot understand your pain fully,” Li said in the letter. “But we are all Chinese and we care about each other. We are all away from home and the best we can do is to share warmth together and pray that the matter will be solved as soon as possible.”
Frank C. Zagare, Ph.D. professor of political science, said Hong Kong presents a “unique challenge” to the Chinese regime.
“Hong Kong has a long tradition of democracy,” Zagare said in an email. “And there is more freedom of expression and access to information on the island than in China generally.”
Zagare said, for China’s government, “it is important to maintain control lest it lose control elsewhere.” The government will have to give the protestors something in order to calm down the situation, he said.
Louis Mak, a junior business marketing major from Hong Kong, was worried news of the protest would cause tension between him and his roommate, a Chinese international student.
Instead, Mak found he was very understanding of the situation.
Mak said his roommate even posted a Facebook status supporting the protest.
On Oct. 1, Hong Kong students gathered in the Student Union lobby to show support for the protest.
About 30 students showed up to make posters and discuss the current events. The point of the event was to show support by posting a group photo onto Facebook with their signs. Many Hong Kong students from different countries like Germany, Canada and Australia are doing the same to show support even though they are not physically there, according to Mak.
John T. Ho, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the graduate school, said the student protestors will not get what they want. It is unlikely China would accommodate the demands of the protestors due to Hong Kong and China’s differences politically and culturally, he said.
Ho, who has no relation to student Vanessa Ho, grew up in Hong Kong and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Hong Kong. He moved to the United States in the 1960s to attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It is not “realistic” that China would allow universal suffrage in Hong Kong, he said.
“I hope there is a way for everybody to claim small victories on both sides so that they can prevent this from escalating into anything more violent or explosive,” he said.
He, however, said the students will still be victorious in the end because the protest is an important step in Hong Kong’s history and it will contribute to the development of Hong Kong as a politically advanced and enlightened society.
On Thursday, HKSA hosted an informational session about the protest. Attendees could also make a yellow ribbon, which represents universal suffrage, in support of the Hong Kong protestors.