The anti-China movement—which began as a protest against extradition legislation but has morphed into a more general anti-government campaign—is an overwhelmingly young one.
Nearly 60 percent of those involved are aged 29 or younger, with just 18 percent 45 of older, according to The South China Morning Post. While university students are a key group within the activists, high schoolers are also regularly on the front line too.
The youngest have also been involved in the most high-profile and violent incidents. An 18-year-old high school student was the first shot with live ammunition, a 14-year-old was the second person shot, and another 18-year-old was charged with attempted murder for attacking a police officer with a box cutter.
Schools and university campuses have become key sites for additional protests, keeping anti-government sentiment bubbling and visible inbetween weekend actions. Mass boycotting of classes, sit-ins and human chains have all disrupted academic institutions, in defiance of the government’s efforts to stop them.
Despite the disruption, some schools have refused to punish students involved in the protests. Multiple institutions have this week, for example, refused to expel those arrested during recent weekend protests, The South China Morning Post noted.
The youthful character of the movement is borne out in the arrest figures. As of last week, least 750 of the more than 2,500 people arrested since mass unrest broke out are younger than 18, The Guardian reported. This means almost one third of all of those detained are children.
Matthew Cheung, the territory’s deputy leader, described the figure as “shocking and heartbreaking” and called on parents and teachers to dissuade young people form joining anti-government actions.
But according to activists, the high proportion of young supporters speaks to the tenacity of the movement, as well as the daunting task facing the pro-Beijing government and its police force for decades to come.
Samuel Chu, the managing director of the U.S.-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, told Newsweek that children as young as 12 had been arrested by Hong Kong’s police force, which has been accused of widespread brutality against activists.
Chu described the mass arrest strategy as “desperate,” and a sign that the regional government “is acting as the obedient child of the Chinese Communist Party.”
“If they think that by beating, arresting, jailing and ruining the future of a new generation of Hong Kongers is going to stop protesters, they are sorely mistaken,” Chu warned. “The children and students are out precisely to fight for the only future they want and will have—and that future is free and democratic.”
Pro-democracy activist and singer Denise Ho concurred, telling reporters Friday that heavy-handed policing will only make the Hong Kong government’s position more precarious and citizens less willing to compromise.
Ho described the strategy of arresting children as “very short-sighted and stupid.” She explained that Hong Kong communities would not “stand by” when faced with such oppression.
Protesters had five demands from the government. The first—the full withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill—has been achieved. But still outstanding are demands for an independent investigation into police conduct, a full amnesty for all those arrested, retraction of the term “rioters” to describe the activists, and full suffrage for the territory.
But the government, and its backers in Beijing, seem little interested in more concessions. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has used emergency powers to introduce a ban on face masks, and on Tuesday told reporters she is considering more measures to suppress the unrest.
For Chu, such intransigence is setting the government up for a fall. “Lam and her government have done precisely what a free and democratic future for Hong Kong needed: a mass and relentless popular education campaign about what it means to be free and the cost of that securing and maintaining those freedoms,” he told Newsweek.
“This is democratic education at its purest—starting at the base, streaming into and stemming from every neighborhood and buoyed by the Hong Kongers’ resilience and resourcefulness,” he added.
“By targeting children and youth, Lam is baptizing—with tear gas—a new generation of Hong Kongers with the pro-democracy spirit and commitment.”