Hong Kong protests: How young activists led the way

Last month Yvonne Leung Lai Kwong, a 21-year-old undergraduate and student union president, found herself at the forefront of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. She gives her insight into the largely youthful protests, which at their peak saw up to 100,000 people take to the streets.

I wouldn’t say I am an organizer of the demonstrations – there is no one organizer here. But young people and students have definitely been the primary initiators.

I fell into this role quite unexpectedly. I first ran for students’ union president eight months ago with the intention of bringing students together and contributing where I was needed. I never expected events to unfold as they have.

There are people who say the scale of the demonstrations is a result of students playing a key role, and it’s true that some people came out in solidarity after the police used tear gas and pepper spray. It’s hard to say for sure what the turnout would have been had that not happened. However, I do believe people are staying on now because they have been moved by young people’s strong conviction in pursuing genuine democracy. I have also been very touched by the protestors who remained on the streets despite the use of tear gas.

The “politest” demonstratorsThese three weeks spent on the streets with my fellow demonstrators have been an intense experience. Many of us have become close friends who truly care for each other’s safety. I’ve also witnessed great self-discipline from students and young people. They have led the recycling of materials and resources at protest sites, and some have also volunteered to clean up the streets.

No one is directing these activities, but there are volunteers who spontaneously take up duties. For example, my hall mates from university turn up every morning and schedule shifts for themselves. I’ve also seen youngsters on bicycles delivering food to those who haven’t eaten. These acts of civic consciousness are reasons why we have been dubbed the “politest demonstrators”. I believe there are many strong bonds that have been forged here that will last for a long time.

I’m aware that our critics say the demonstrations have caused economic losses and bring inconvenience to people’s lives. We recognize some of that and have frequently apologized to those who have been affected, such as workers who have had to leave home early because of the traffic disruption. We have also at times tried to negotiate with demonstrators occupying roads so vehicles can go through, but we also respect the demonstrators’ choices if they insist on staying on the roads. The people on the streets see themselves as bargaining chips who can help us negotiate with the government.

What young people want

We are fighting for genuine democracy, but the increase in inequality is another reason why young people have turned out in such large numbers. We feel that social mobility is declining and the social ladder is very difficult for us to climb.

My parents worry greatly about my safety, but they also understand and share my political beliefs. They call me every day to make sure I’m safe and have also tried to persuade me to retreat. I have skipped classes for three weeks and, like everyone else, I am very keen to see a resolution. The upcoming dialogue with the government is definitely a positive development, but I’m not in a position to forecast what will come out of it. Unless there’s some real progress towards genuine universal suffrage, we will not budge.