Police records indicate that over one third of all pro-democracy activists arrested in the current Hong Kong demonstrations were born after China reclaimed Hong Kong from Great Britain in 1997.
Of the 4,000 protesters who have been arrested, more than a third are age 20 and younger, according to police records. Dozens are 14 or younger. The youngest protester arrested is 11.
The remarkably sustained, months-long protests based on consensus and without organized leadership has deeply shocked the Chinese Communist Party regime in Beijing. The extreme youthfulness of the protesters has moved Hong Kong’s adult population and further stymied the use of force by China’s supreme leader for life, Xi Jinping.
“This is the most important fight of our generation,” Adam, a high school senior who turned 17 in October, told the Wall Street Journal. Adam estimates that about 60 out of 400 students in his Hong Kong high school actively support the protests. “We can’t back down now, no matter what the teachers say or how they try to stop us.”
In October, two teens — one of them just 14-years-old — were shot by police during demonstrations. Both survived, but the older teenager was charged with rioting, an offense which carries a prison term of up to 10 years.
A high school student was charged with wounding a police officer with intent for allegedly jabbing a boxcutter into his neck. Recently, a 13-year-old arrested on the subway was carrying two undetonated Molotov cocktails, the Journal reported on Nov. 15.
A survey in June of more than 1,000 Hong Kong residents age 19 to 29 found that only 2.7 percent of respondents said they identify as Chinese.
The communist regime in Beijing “blames the school system for failing to inculcate Hong Kong’s youth with a sense of Chinese national identity,” reporters Natasha Khan, Joyu Wang and Frances Yoon wrote for the Journal.
Some Chinese officials claim Hong Kong teachers are helping foment the protest movement.
“Some educators use their power and resources to spread the seeds of violence and hatred,” said Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese government’s office responsible for Hong Kong. Teachers who encourage students to boycott school or engage in protests “should be severely punished.”
On Thursday, protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University shot arrows at policemen, who responded with volleys of tear gas. Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping, speaking at a summit in Brazil Thursday, blamed protesters for the violence and urged a tough police response.
Pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong “have urged school heads to expel student protesters charged with rioting. Last month, the city’s education chiefs asked school principals to report children who wear face masks to school in defiance of a recent ban,” the Journal report said.
Adam, who did not want to be identified by his full name for fear of repercussions, says he suspects teachers called the police on him when he and a classmate chanted protest slogans outside his high school asking classmates to join him in a school boycott as a way to support the protests. He said police officers searched students on the playground after teachers called them to break up a protest.
Zack Ho, 18, heads the Hong Kong Student Strike Alliance, which advises high-school students on organizing protest events at schools and how to deal with opposition from teachers and principals.
“At his own high school he said he had met resistance from school officials and push back from mainland Chinese students,” the Journal report noted.
Zack’s principal rejected his idea to set up a wall for people to post sticky notes in support for the movement. “The principal also told him she won’t allow protest events in school over fears that it would increase tensions with mainland students at the school,” the Journal report said.
Zack said he found workarounds. While walking between classes, he shouted pro-democracy slogans. In response one day, he said a mainland Chinese classmate threw a piece of paper with a hammer and sickle drawn on it. “I support the Chinese government. Long live China!” Zack said the boy shouted.
Lau Pak-ho, a high school junior, told the Journal he was cut out of his class photo for boycotting classes in support of protests. The 17-year-old high school junior, said his school issued a notice to parents to warn against students taking part in class boycotts. The school said anyone who took part would be excluded from class photos, said Pak-ho, who boycotted anyway, with around 40 classmates.
Across the city, more than 390 high schools — more than 80% of secondary schools — have formed “concern groups” to organize protests, according to Samson Yuen, assistant professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.
Steve, a high school English teacher, told the Journal he fears losing his job and that prompted him to delete Facebook posts in which he expressed his views supporting the protests. He said he no longer feels comfortable openly discussing current news events in class. Officials at his school, however, have allowed students to chant slogans in favor of protests at school assemblies.
In his homeroom, in which about a third of students are from mainland China, students are divided, Steve said. When he showed a news clip in class that included protests and a Chinese national flag thrown into a river, some students shouted “dirty cops” while mainland students sat silently.
Concerned that Beijing’s scrutiny of secondary schools might make him a target, Steve changed his Facebook profile name and picture, the Journal noted. “Click by click, he deleted posts in which he objected to police use of force against protesters and criticisms of China’s ruling party. He unfriended students.”
Many Hong Kong teachers say they may raise the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as a routine part of course work. Some said they are now less willing to incorporate discussions on current protests, fearing they could lose their jobs.
“The class encourages the teaching of half-truths,” said Regina Ip, a government adviser. “We need to be teaching our children China’s rich history. How can kids themselves identify as being part of China if they have no knowledge of the country?”
The Journal noted that Hong Kong educators “fear a renewed attempt to push Chinese patriotic education, which promotes Communist Party ideology. Local officials tried to bring in such a course in 2012, only to shelve plans after 10 days of street protests led by teachers and students.”
Among the protesters in 2012 was a then-14-year-old Joshua Wong, now the international face of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. At that age, Wong said, teens aren’t likely to shoulder real economic burdens or think strategically about their personal careers. “The only idea in your mind is how to get a better future for your generation,” he said.
On Sept. 30, as students called for a citywide student boycott, Adam said his school held an assembly to raise the Chinese flag in celebration of the following day’s 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China.
“Some classmates ran into the hall, singing their own protest anthem. He and a few others stood outside the campus, chanting protest slogans. Through a loudspeaker, he shouted up at the classrooms urging children to not be scared to come join the boycott,” the Journal report noted.
“After two hours of chanting, and refusing orders from a school administrator to go back to class, a group of police arrived at the sidewalk outside the school and told the group they were suspected of illegal assembly, Adam said. The officers searched the students’ pockets and bags, but left without taking any action, he said.”
Adam and other teenage protesters say they are driven by a desire to install young lawmakers — many of whom were removed from office or prevented from running.
“That’s all I want to see: someone in government who will listen to me and fight for me, not for some distant government far away in the north in Beijing,” Adam said. “Who else can we entrust our own futures to?”