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Calm after the storm: Hong Kong’s battle-weary student protesters face exams and ponder the future

Months of protest – often dominated by students – have left many young Hongkongers with difficult questions: about education, about their future, and even about whether they have a future.

Chan, who requested to use only his surname, is in his last year at Ying Wa College and will take the Diploma of Secondary Education exam this year. He is haunted by the August 31 incident, in which police stormed into an MTR station and started beating passengers and protesters with their batons. Scenes of police brutality play on loop in his head like an endless horror movie. Sitting in the school library, he can barely concentrate.

“I cannot stop thinking about it,” he said. “I always wonder if there is a way to prevent our fellow protesters from getting hurt.”

The HKDSE is well-known for being extremely stressful. As DSE results are one of the main factors deciding whether students can enrol in a post-secondary institution, there is a strong link between students’ performance in the exam and their future prospects. This year there is added uncertainty as – for weeks – it was unclear whether the tests would go ahead on time owing to the coronavirus.

Chan is not confident about his performance at all. “I think my performance is closely related to my learning attitude and the politics in our society.”

He is also no stranger to insomnia. As Chan and his schoolmates have been paying close attention to the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, most of them have experienced difficulty in concentrating. “I believe whoever is caught up with the news will find it hard to focus fully on academics,” he said.

Chan comes from a financially stable family, and his parents are keen to send him overseas for university. He has been trying to persuade his parents that he should stay in Hong Kong. He has not succeeded.

"September 6" Prince Edward Mong Kok Police Station umbrellas roadblock defence line

Protesters form a line of defence outside Mong Kok Police Station in Prince Edward on September 6. Photo: Studio Incendo.

He was made to fill out applications for foreign universities. Although he is for now still physically in Hong Kong, even thinking about the future makes him homesick.

“Sometimes I feel like our generation is the chosen one,” he said. “We are destined to have a harder time than others. If I could decide my own future I would stay in Hong Kong so I can continue to be part of the protests.”

The road not taken

Unlike Chan who is currently preparing for the HKDSE, Fu stopped going to school a long time ago. The 18-year-old frontline protester, who refuses to disclose his actual name and school due to the fear of arrest, said his school was full of pro-Beijing students.

There were students who tried to form a human chain outside of the school, which is considered a peaceful way to protest. But those who were involved had their pictures taken by pro-police students. According to Fu, pro-democracy students would be snitched on by other students and teachers at school.

October 20 mask ban china extradition protest

Photo: Studio Incendo.

“They will ask us a lot of questions and try to figure out what you have been doing,” he said. “It is so irritating and the environment made me even more stressed when there is so much happening in Hong Kong.”

Besides the fear of being found out, he said most frontliners are exhausted. It has been seven months since Fu and his team of activists first hit the streets. They have been through countless battles, including the Chinese University of Hong Kong clashes and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege.

Such conflicts have raised doubts among students. Stand News shared a photo of a student holding a sign written “why go to school when there is no future” during a student strike initiated by students from Queen’s College.

The photo had 3,400 “shares” on Facebook and the quote was widely circulated among students on other social media platforms. It resonates with students.

point of school placard

“Why go to school when there is no future?” Photo: StandNews.

The negative impact of the 12-day PolyU siege is deeply rooted in protesters’ minds. “It is hard to tell others what it was like to be trapped in CU and PolyU,” Fu said. “It is hard to explain what we have gone through.”

Having seen many of his peers arrested by the police, he found it hard to focus on exam preparation and school in general. Even though some of his teammates were bailed, he still regrets not being able to save them.

He said achieving the protest movement’s five demands has become the only thing that he cares about. As a result, Fu stopped going to school and decided not to take the DSE exam.

Protests first erupted last June over the now-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators were demanding an independent probe into the police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

Asked about the reason for this decision to halt his studies, Fu said he “gets this question a lot”.

CUHK No.2 bridge "November 13"

The Chinese University of Hong Kong, No.2 bridge, on November 13. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

“I think taking the exam will not help me,” he said. “I would rather invest in the movement if I have the time and energy.”

“I want everyone to know this movement is not a game,” he said. “We are very serious about our five demands and we don’t choose to fight because we think it is cool.”

Dare to dream and learn

In October, Jessica started giving out flyers to students whenever there were rallies and students-only assemblies. The sentence “you dream and I tutor” along with the telegram channel @dreamandlearn are offered on business cards.

Jessica is using an alias – not only due to the fear of arrest, but also because she is the founder of Dream and Learn, an organisation providing free tutoring for students. The motto of the organisation is “to teach when students are dreaming,” ‘Dreaming’ (Fak Mung) is a code used by protesters to conceal their participation in protests while describing what they experienced.

you dream and I tutor

Jessica was still a student during the Umbrella Movement, the political movement in 2014 fighting for electoral reform. She recalls how political instability in the city affected her as a student protester.

“I was once in their shoes so I understand where they are coming from,” she said. “Students have an important role to play in this movement, but at the same time, the sacrifice they make is hard to imagine.”

Encouraging students to be tutored is not easy. When she approaches students offering free tutoring she is often rejected by students who tell her that studying is not their first priority.

Some took her advice and signed up for free tutoring. Students are divided into six groups according to where they live. They are matched with volunteer tutors according to their specific needs such as subjects and locations

A few months later, some students told her that they didn’t know whether they should continue as there was a high chance that they would die in clashes between the police and protesters.

“When their lives are at risk, they don’t know what awaits and it makes sense that they want to give up,” she said.  “But we also acknowledge that students are mature enough to make their own decisions and they are capable of getting back up again,” said Jessica.

October 12 mask ban china extradition protest

Photo: Studio Incendo.

“It’s like a roller-coaster for them where they have their highs and lows,” she said. “We hope we can provide them with emotional support.

When it comes to studying and learning, she thinks it really depends on the students themselves. Tutors cannot control whether or not students have the willingness to study. Jessica said she is not asking students to withdraw from the movement and just focus on studying. She wants them to learn so they can become a better version of themselves.

The goal of Dream and Learn is not simply to provide academic support. She hopes they can learn more and broaden their horizons. “I am a strong believer that knowledge can change one’s destiny,” she said. “And I want this mentality to stick with them for the rest of their lives.”

Calm after the storm: Hong Kong's battle-weary student protesters face exams and ponder the future