Over breakfast at a sandwich place in Kowloon Tong, three of Hong Kong’s most famous student activists are talking about their roles in Occupy Central. Like all students, Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Agnes Chow Ting, both 18, and Alex Chow Yong-kang, 23, talk about problems within the government and the need for greater social justice.
They draw on philosophical arguments as justification, but unlike their counterparts in the West, who might quote left-wing thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek, these students openly admire John Rawls, a postwar American political philosopher most famous for writings on political liberalism and justice.
“All philosophy students in Hong Kong ... are largely influenced by this kind of [Rawlsian] idea, how we can make a better society, or democracy,” said Alex Chow, who studies comparative literature and sociology at the University of Hong Kong.
In America, Rawls is still considered a prominent philosopher and a staple of undergraduate philosophy courses, but his writing is typically not at the forefront of mass protest movements.
Wong says he can’t wait to read Rawls at university.
Less than a week after an interview with the South China Morning Post, both Wong and Agnes Chow Ting obtained results better than the university entry requirements in the Diploma of Secondary Education exams. However, Wong has said he was disappointed with some of his exam results and plans to appeal.
Rawls’ significance to Hong Kong students, particularly those involved in activism, speaks volumes about the city’s unique political and social traditions.
Hongkongers take great pride in their legal system, inherited from the British tradition, as well as as the strength of the city’s rule of law. It is also something many here fear losing when the “one country, two systems” policy ends in 2047.
Watch: Students respond to Carrie Lam's report on universal suffrage for Hong Kong in 2017
The students seem to have realised that it is these kinds of traditions they have to appeal to if they want to see Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement succeed. They will also have to tap into it to convince the city's relatively conservative populace to take part in the next phase of Occupy Central.
“If you ask Hong Kong people if they think that rule of law is important, they will say it is very important,” said Agnes Chow Ting. “The thing is, different Hong Kong people have a different definition of rule of law. For us, as activists, we think that rule of law is that the law itself has to show justice.”
Occupy Central, which is coordinated by a variety of political parties, groups and NGOs, has already seen success with its democracy referendum, in which one-fifth of the electorate voted in an unofficial poll about universal suffrage.
Hong Kong’s annual July 1 pro-democracy march, in which Occupy Central played a significant role, was also attended by hundreds of thousands of people.
However, it’s the next step – physically occupying Hong Kong’s business district in a mass act of civil disobedience – that is presenting a challenge to organisers, according to Wong.
“In Hong Kong, some of the people may believe in rule of law, but they may think civil disobedience violates the principle of the rule of law,” he said.
In a recent poll of 823 Hongkongers by the South China Morning Post at this year’s July 1 protest, 20 per cent of respondents said they would participate in Occupy Central, but 36 per cent said they disagreed with it and 43 per cent were unsure. However, the same group seemed to overwhelmingly support universal suffrage and public nomination of candidates.
Wong said that even when protesters were arrested for occupying Chater Road following this year’s July 1 democracy march, they were still respectful of the law. “We do not violate [the law]. After organising the demonstration, and seeing the police officers, we will bear the responsibility, and go to court, and go to jail,” Wong said.
The students are unsure when Occupy Central will happen – or even if it will happen at all. They are waiting to hear the government’s proposal for electoral reform, which they think should be released sometime in August. At the moment, they seem more concerned about it than their own exam results and individual futures.
Though convincing the public to participate in Occupy Central will be a challenge, Chow says it is the only option left if the government comes back empty-handed.
“We had too many demonstrations, votes, elections in the past 30 years and we can see the way to negotiate is simply or regularly losing its power, and we have to turn to a new path, and that would be the act of civil disobedience,” he said.