The persistent protests in Hong Kong broke new ground when violence between police and student activists at The Chinese University of Hong Kong resulted in the suspension of classes and the subsequent evacuation of all students. However, the reports around these protests have become dangerously sympathetic to the riot police and Beijing’s use of excessive force as a result of columnists’ focus on the consequences of the protests rather than the progress the protests have and could continue to inspire.
Across a multitude of news articles, there is an extreme emphasis on the misplaced students who were forced to relocate amid the protests, following the death of Alex Chow, a Hong Kong student who died after falling from the ledge of a parking garage. Reports state that Chow was likely attempting to escape from tear gas thrown by police. Reports on Hong Kong specifically quote students who are upset about relocation. One article interviews Jay Thuluri, an exchange student originally from Babson College in Massachusetts, who states, “I came here to study … There is no point for me to stay here with the potential of dangerous situations.”
Although students’ reactions are important to the stories of the protests, by highlighting the tragedy of their relocation, reporters are causing readers in the United States to look unfavorably upon the protests. Similar to the Chinese government, reporters are encouraging us to judge these protests solely by appearance. Geng Shuang, Foreign Ministry spokesperson for China, claims that “Hong Kong’s problem is not about human rights or democracy; rather, it’s about stopping violence and chaos, restoring order.” There are endless descriptions of The Chinese University of Hong Kong as a volatile, graffiti-covered fortress, combat zone or citadel in The Washington Post’s coverage. These descriptions are purposeful and targeted toward the apprehensive outsiders who perceive Hong Kong as an unnecessarily dangerous area. The focus on the looks of the university creates a subsequent focus on the students within it, who are then associated more with violence than the police, despite the police consistently displaying outright brutality by firing tear gas and shooting protesters dead when they face only makeshift weapons in return.
However, when we look to Hong Kong, we shouldn’t simply focus on the dangers of violence. This reporting tactic leads us to view Hong Kong’s protests as disturbances rather than an essential organization that characterizes a bottom-up democratization process. Weak protests lead only to a broadened dictatorship; it is only when the soft-liners of an administration underestimate the strength of protesters that democratization occurs, and the incessant protests in Hong Kong suggest that liberalization processes are likely. Of course students are struggling at this time, but by omitting quotes from students or professors that may feel empowered by their bravery, reporters are contributing to the perception of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests as excessive violence on both sides. The most supportive quote from students in The Washington Post article referenced above only stated that the campus should be a safe space, which also implies responsibility on behalf of both parties. There are undoubtedly students who feel pride in what they perceive as civic duty, yet their voices are missing from these narratives. The protests must be understood as the mistreatment of protesters who refuse to settle for less than their basic civil rights.
Beyond portraying the protests as annoyances and disruptions, these articles also contribute to the popular idea that political discussion is not for younger generations. The quote from Jay Thuluri earlier on portrays an innocent student who was simply trying to study — an admirable pursuit of the American dream. Police describe The Chinese University of Hong Kong as a weapons factory, condemning professors and students for spreading pro-democracy ideals.
The opinion that the youth is too inexperienced or unintelligent to take part in meaningful political discussion has long been used to exclude younger generations from a seat at the table. Older generations today view the United States’ success in World War II and the overcoming of the Great Depression as feats younger generations could never surpass with their so-called entitled attitudes. Jason Feifer writes, “What monsters we become. We bring a new generation into this world, only to convince them of their shortcomings … We send children off into the future, telling them the greatest moments have already passed.” However, young students today demand greater respect, fighting back against the generational and conservative dismissal of climate change, women’s rights, racism, homophobia and other forms of marginalization with a dismissal of their own: OK, boomer. These articles go to students for quotes only to achieve ageist tokenism with the sole purpose of evoking a preference for a non-protested normalcy, which, we should remember, is oppressive by nature.
The belief that young students are incapable of forming intelligible, autonomous political opinions is simply an excuse to rationalize conservative agendas and preserve the generational disparity in political processes, especially voting. Left-leaning students aren’t being brainwashed by professors, as the Chinese police would like you to believe. The youth in Hong Kong are pioneering for inclusivity and respect by calling attention to the autocratic behavior of the Chinese government. Therefore, we should respect their efforts by writing about their protests more analytically by better describing the reasons behind the demonstrations and placing clear blame on riot police rather than student protesters.
Kaitlyn Liu is a sophomore majoring in English.