Hong Kong students are cutting classes for the sake of democracy

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Aaron Schachter: Climate change was the rallying cry for activists who took part in that massive march in New York over the weekend. People also took the streets of Hong Kong today, but for a different cause. Thousands of students in the Chinese territory called for more democratic rights. They say this is a critical moment for democracy in Hong Kong. The World’s Matthew Bell is heading there to do some reporting next week. First off Matthew, what happened with this student rally today? Matthew Bell: What was surprising about this, Aaron, was that so many people actually showed up. Hong Kong University students don’t have a reputation for being very politically active, and lo and behold, something like 13,000 students, according to organizers, turned out for this rally. They’re calling for more democratic rights, as you mentioned, from Beijing, the central government in China. Here’s some voices from the demonstration today: “We think this student strike is the beginning of a new era. We hope that we can see democracy in our lifetime.” “We need to fight for our freedom and democracy.” “This is at least what students can do at this moment, to start a new beginning of demonstration and make a wake-up call for the general public in society.” Schachter: Now Matthew, pro-democracy protests happen every year in Hong Kong pretty much ever since the territory stopped being a British colony back in 1997. What is different right now? Bell: Activists will say that this is a pivotal moment in Hong Kong’s history and that is because at the end of August, there was a decision made by the central government. What pro-democracy activists see is China reneging on its promise to give Hong Kongers the direct vote to choose what’s called their “Chief Executive” - that’s essentially their governor. When the handover happened, Beijing promised to give universal suffrage to Hong Kongers and let them elect their chief executive under the guise of what China calls the “One country, two systems policy.” Well, supports of democratic rights in Hong Kong say that that decision on August 31st reneged on the promise and now they feel that their democratic rights are under threat. Schachter: Do you get the impression that folks in Hong Kong found this especially surprising that China reneged on those promises? Bell: Not many people would have found this surprising. However, I think a lot of Hong Kongers take pride in their territory, their system being different from mainland China and that I think this moment, things are really coming to a head. Another thing - I talked to an activist today in Hong Kong who took part in the demonstrations, a young student. He said part of this is political, part of it is economic, that students are coming out of university, they’re under a lot of the similar stresses that the middle class is in this country, having a hard time finding a job, getting an apartment, getting by. They want more opportunity and they want the local Hong Kong government and the Beijing government to recognize that. Schachter: So there are a lot of grievances coming out now. Bell: There are, but I think also things are coming to a head with the pro-democracy establishment there in Hong Kong and next week there’s a civil disobedience campaign that is planned and activists have talked about disrupting the normal order and the flow of Hong Kong’s business district, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Schachter: I wonder if you’re concerned, if there’s any fear that - I know this is years ago now - but any sort of Tiananmen-like crackdown could happen in Hong Kong? Bell: The thing is the demonstrators themselves are very careful about the way they talk about this campaign. They say they don’t want chaos, they don’t want to completely disrupt the Hong Kong economy. So they’re walking that thin line of wanting to stand up to Beijing, to call for more democratic rights, which they know very well that the Chinese government is not in the mood to give them. However, they don’t want to alienate their constituency at home. They want more and more support from the Hong Kong public. Schachter: The World’s Matthew Bell, thanks as always. Bell: Thank you, Aaron.