Nearly 7,000 miles away from their homeland, UC Davis students from Hong Kong are closely watching the pro-democracy protests unfold in the semi-autonomous Chinese city-state.
And they are worried.
“For the future of Hong Kong, we have to do something,” organizer Kenneth Chen told a group of 70 during a rally Thursday in front of the student union.
Most of the UC Davis activists grew up in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They complained about the rising influence and sway China holds in Hong Kong, everything from the growing use of Mandarin to the influx of tourists.
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But the demonstrations that began last month in Hong Kong were prompted by Beijing’s refusal to allow free elections in the special administrative region, instead opting to permit only pre-approved candidates to run for chief executive.
To the UC Davis students, the outcome of the debate is especially important because many will head back home once they receive their degrees.
“If we don’t speak out, we’ll never get true democracy,” said Carey Chan, 18, a freshman who participated in the first day of the Hong Kong protests on Sept. 27.
Behind Chan were posters that read “police brutality,” along with images of Hong Kong riot police dousing protesters with pepper spray and tear gas.
During the Thursday rally, students held up signs that read “Support democracy in HK” and snapped pictures to post on social media. The crowd grew quickly as passers-by stopped to listen. A handful of people stayed late to discuss C.Y. Leung, the embattled Hong Kong leader whom demonstrators are trying to oust. The group ended the night with a rousing pro-democracy song in Cantonese.
The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in San Francisco said in a statement the government “respects the rights and freedom of the public to conduct peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, yet is opposed to any unlawful actions that disrupt public safety and public order.”
Specifically addressing the UC Davis protest, the Hong Kong office said, “We equally respect their rights to peaceful assembly and demonstration in accordance with relevant local laws and regulations.”
The Chinese Consulate in San Francisco did not answer calls Friday.
Chen, 22, said Hong Kong’s youths are grappling with the challenges from an increasingly China-centered economy. Real estate prices have skyrocketed with Chinese investment, and jobs are moving to China, he said.
“No one feels they can see the future,” Chen added, noting that the moment was ripe for change, or at least a compromise.
Leo Shin, an associate professor of Chinese history at the University of British Columbia, said the backlash was largely the result of changes in Hong Kong’s economy that have made the region so reliant on China.
“There’s a psychological aspect that Hong Kong is being too quickly incorporated or overrun by the Chinese government,” Shin said by phone from Vancouver, Canada. “It makes people uneasy.”
The Taiwanese are also watching apprehensively.
Geoff Wei, 22, a native of Taoyuan, Taiwan, called the island’s increasing economic reliance on China “very dangerous.”
“If we rely on China, they don’t even need to fight a war. They can just take over everything,” Wei said. “I feel what Hong Kong is feeling.”
Self-ruled Taiwan split from China in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s Communists. Chiang set up a rival government in Taipei, officially known as the Republic of China.
The People’s Republic of China in Beijing continues to regard Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunited by force, if necessary. Though relations between the two sides have warmed up significantly in recent years, political talks have stalled. In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated Beijing’s long-standing desire to unite Taiwan under “One Country, Two Systems,” a constitutional principle allowing limited autonomy that has been used to govern Hong Kong and Macau. The idea was immediately rejected by Taiwan.
Chen and many other students said the outcome of Hong Kong’s demonstrations – poised to enter their second week – would be impossible to predict. But several UC Davis students from China expressed hope that Hong Kong could become a model for Chinese democracy.
“Democracy isn’t easy,” said Michael He, an exchange student from Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. “We have to open the gates slowly.”