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 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.
At its height, 120,000 people, parents and students alike, converged on government headquarters to push for the change. Both Scholarism and the federation are using the Internet to spread their message and eschewing the more traditional banner-led marches.
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.
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.