A day after we spoke, Siu stood on a stage at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. A typhoon rolled across Hong Kong that morning, drenching the campus, and lingering gusts of wind whipped up black banners hanging from academic buildings demanding freedom for Hong Kong. Throngs of students made their way up slippery streets toward the rally. Many stopped briefly to take photos of a temporary addition to the campus, a statue of a female protester in goggles, a gas mask, and hard hat charging forward, her right hand clutching an umbrella, her left raising a black flag emblazoned with a revolutionary slogan.
Video boards were erected so people at the back of the crowd could see what was happening onstage. Some students watched a live-stream on their mobile phones, sharing headphones. The audio system struggled to project her words, but Siu punctuated the speech with a popular rallying cry: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Some 30,000 students chanted the phrase back in response, their voices echoing through the hills around the campus.
Students acknowledge that they are in a fortuitous position to protest. They are largely unencumbered by other obligations such as jobs or family responsibilities. Students, and youth more broadly, also have their own “political aura,” says Wong Ching Fung, who served as the president of the Chinese University’s student union from 2015 to 2016. “When they speak about something, citizens and society think they are more pure, more true.”
One of the only hitches in the hours-long rally was when a student from mainland China stormed the stage; the student was quickly removed. Relations between students from the mainland and Hong Kong have been tense this summer, with rival camps engaging in heated arguments and ripping down each other’s posters. One particularly telling scene came at City University, where a mainland student was caught toppling a pro-democracy statue before being subdued by campus security.
As the event drew to a close, Jacky So, the current president of the Chinese University student union, answered questions from a mob of reporters. So ditched plans for an internship and part-time summer job when protests began to gather momentum. The class boycott is not an education boycott, he explained. There are public lectures and other instructional events on campus for students to attend—“We won’t stop learning,” he told me. Secondary school students have held their own demonstrations, making human chains around their schools in acts of disobedience that have at times been tinged with teenage awkwardness.