Youth as a Catalyst of Change: Hong Kong
Author: Yani Aldrich, February 2020.
“The Hong Kong youth have been catalysts for so much change in just the past seven years and they are still going forward in full force. Some youth leaders are even running for seats in the legislature (Yiu-man). As a youth-led movement, the Hong Kong protests have the power to change the future. Youth can take the necessary risks to fight back against Beijing’s continued advancements to diminish Hong Kong’s autonomy, they are innovative, and their passion leads the movement because they are fighting for the future and future generations.”
Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Throughout history, we have witnessed the power that youth can have in movements, becoming a relentless force against government actions, successfully bringing messages to domestic and global stages and sparking change. Messages that urge for environmental, social, cultural, and political changes, among others. Youth-led protest movements during the Vietnam War in the United States in the 1960s, the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989, the Arab Spring beginning in Tunisia in 2010, and others, have been major forces that have been responsible for political and social changes. Youth as catalysts of change is not a new concept; studies and news reports have been covering youth populations in political movements for decades. However, different movements have unique circumstances that motivate youth. With previous youth-led movements in mind, this paper looks at the protests taking place in Hong Kong starting in March of 2019 and touches on the movements that took place in 2012 and 2014. For reference, protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2012 following the Hong Kong’s governments intentions to incorporate Chinese national education into the Hong Kong curriculum (Lau). In 2014, protests began again and became known as the Umbrella Movement following mainland China’s announcement that the promise of universal suffrage for Hong Kong citizens would come at a cost: the only people allowed to run for chief executive would be those approved by a pro-Beijing election committee (“Function of the Election Committee.”; Bush and Whelan-Wuest).
The Hong Kong protests of 2019 in particular have drawn international attention for a three main reasons: first, the protests represent Hong Kong’s fight for autonomy against mainland China’s persistent efforts to infringe on the rights of Hong Kong citizens; second, increasing violence has erupted between protestors and the police; and third, the protests include a large population of youth who, most notably, have taken on leadership roles by organizing many of the protests at schools and universities.
The Hong Kong protests of 2012, 2014, and 2019 beg the following questions: Why are Hong Kong youth taking such a dominant role in these movements and what are the implications of this? Where are the older generations?
Background: China’s Increasing Authority
Hong Kong was originally ceded to the British by China in 1847 and remained a British colony until 1997. In 1997, Hong Kong was returned to China under the condition that Hong Kong would be allowed to keep its existing system under a “high degree of autonomy” from China until 2047 (Kirby). This meant that Hong Kong would be a part of China, while retaining the power to control its own political, legal, and economic systems, providing its citizens with rights that Chinese citizens do not have, such as freedom of press (Victor and Yuhas). In terms of governance and politics, Hong Kong would have a “system of governance led by a Chief Executive and an Executive Council, with a two-tiered system of representative government and an independent judiciary” as opposed to the monopoly held by the Chinese Communist Party over China’s political, government, and economic system,” (“Government Structure.”; Albert and Xu). Economically, the goal was for Hong Kong to retain its capitalist structure, not taking on China’s socialist system. Throughout the years, however, China has made attempts at gaining control of Hong Kong’s government system such as when China attempted to do away with Hong Kong’s liberal education and replace it with mainland China’s nationalist education in 2012, a move that would have promoted fierce Chinese patriotism in the classroom (Piscatella). In 2014, China decided to grant Hong Kong citizens universal suffrage in elections. Originally the decision for chief executive was made by an election committee of approximately 1,200 Hong Kong residents, a committee which was predominantly pro-Beijing. Universal suffrage would have given all the Hong Kong citizens a vote. However, China announced that universal suffrage would only be granted on two conditions: the election committee gets to pick the nominees and Beijing selects the people on the election committee (Kirby). Another disturbing example is the abrupt disappearances of Hong Kong booksellers into mainland China custody in 2015 who criticized the Beijing government (Ramzy). These disappearances were a part of the catalyst for the current Hong Kong protests as China began to further infringe on the rights and liberties of Hong Kong’s citizens.
Background: The Extradition Bill
The introduction of the extradition bill that directly led to the protests of 2019 started with an incident in 2018. In February of 2018, a couple from Hong Kong traveled to Taiwan where the man murdered his girlfriend, and then returned to Hong Kong. Under Hong Kong law, the man would have to be tried in Taiwan, where the crime occurred. However, Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty with Taiwan, leaving him to remain in Hong Kong facing only minor charges for crimes he committed in Hong Kong, including “possession of his girlfriend’s cellphone, digital camera and $3,000 in cash.” (Ramzy).
On February 15, 2019, the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill was brought up for discussion at a Legislative Council Panel meeting after being submitted by Hong Kong’s Security Buerau (“Cooperation between Hong Kong and Other Places on Juridical Assistance in Criminal Matters.”). Despite protests beginning on March 31, 2019, Carrie Lam officially submitted the proposal to the Legislative Council on April 3, 2019 (“2019 Hong Kong Protests Timeline.”; “Law Change Plugs Loophole.”). This bill would legally allow people facing criminal charges to be extradited to countries that did not have formal extradition treaties with Hong Kong, meaning that Hong Kong citizens who committed crimes in other countries could be sent back to said country for a trial. Since China and Hong Kong do not have a formal extradition treaty, the introduction of this bill would allow for Hong Kong to extradite citizens who committed crimes in China to China (Victor and Yuhas).
While proponents of the bill argued that it would fix the loopholes in the current Hong Kong system that allow for criminals to remain in Hong Kong free of consequences, those in Hong Kong who opposed the bill argued that it would legalize the kidnapping and forced disappearances that China is accused of committing in Hong Kong and other countries. China would, hypothetically, be able to legally extradite Hong Kong citizens who openly express anti-Chinese-government views, as well as those people who committed crimes according to the Chinese government, even if the act was committed prior to the passing of the bill (“Law Change Plugs Loophole.” and Kirby).The 2019 Hong Kong protests erupted because this bill represented much more than a simple extradition amendment to Hong Kong citizens. The bill represented China asserting increased control over Hong Kong in a potentially dangerous way (Kirby).
12,000 took to the streets in Hong Kong in the first protest in March to protest the bill (Chan). As the protests intensified, grew more violent, and shut down public spaces, the Hong Kong government appeased the protesters by announcing that the bill would be amended. From August 9-13, 2019, protestors occupied the Hong Kong International Airport, resulting in the airport shutting down entirely from the 12th to the 13th (Li and Ives; Kirby, “Hong Kong Airport”). The government eventually paused its implementation temporarily on June 12, 2019 before formally withdrawing the bill on September 4, 2019 (Kirby; Victor and Yuhas). These announcements by the government, however, did not put an end to the protests, as the protest movement had already come to symbolize something far greater: freeing Hong Kong from mainland China’s control over Hong Kong’s government. At the writing of this paper, the protests have only continued to escalate in terms of violence. Protestors and police officers have reported injuries inflicted by the opposing side, protestors have died in the chaos of the protests, and protestors have begun using firebombs (Wong, et al).
At the forefront of the Hong Kong protest movement against Chinese influence are crowds of young people. In every picture and video of the protest, Hong Kong’s young population is visible. Images display protestors in their teens to late 20s, anywhere from middle school students to post-college graduates. In the battle for autonomy, these young people have brought increased attention, significance, and power to themselves and their movement by utilizing their campuses as locations for protests and creating student-led organizations to spread messages. Stories have included clashes between younger protesters and the police and student-led organizations preparing protests across Hong Kong campuses (May and Yu). Geared with strength in numbers through student-led organizations on campuses across Hong Kong, political knowledge from a mandatory liberal studies curriculum, and a unique sense of identity different from the older generation, the youth have taken places on the front lines of these protest movements.
Students showed up on campus in gas masks, as well as black shirts and eye patches in reference to a volunteer medic who suffered an injury to her eye during a protest when a bean bag fired by police hit her (Kilpatrick). They have boycotted going to class in favor of studying in libraries and other classrooms, and have held assemblies (May and Yu; Ramzy and Qin). Mass student protests involving students anywhere from middle-school aged to college have been organized by student groups. In September 2019, it was reported that “as many as 10,000 students from some 200 secondary and tertiary institutions were joining the class boycott, which was co-organized with two student groups.” The boycott called for the liberation of Hong Kong (Time Staff).
In a New York Times article, a student demonstrator stated, “On the one hand, I have to care about my grades, and on the other, I need to perform my civic duty” (May and Yu). Students have reported that they go out protesting in all their gear, and then return home and hide all the equipment from their parents to avoid being discovered (Engelbrecht, et al). Some students have said that protesting in this movement is more important than attending school, which goes against the pleas of their parents and other members of the older generation (Engelbrecht, et al). The attitudes of the older generation will be addressed later in this paper. Joshua Wong, a young protestor who has been involved in Hong Kong protest movements since 2012, said in an interview, “When we can’t see the future of our society, how can we see our personal future and our personal career?” (May and Yu).
Officials in China have commented on the large presence of youth in this movement against mainland China’s efforts to curb Hong Kong’s autonomy, saying that “the prominence of the city’s youth at recent mass protests is the clearest sign yet that this tradition of academic freedom has gone too far, giving rise to a generation of rebels” (May and Qin). The academic freedom being referred to is that of the liberal studies curriculum in Hong Kong which was put in place in 1992 by the British to ease concerns of the population about Chinese rule as well as to “counter the rote learning approach widespread in the city” at the time (May and Qin; Chiu).
Pro-Beijing leaders and Chinese officials cite this liberal education as the reason behind the youth’s current defiance. The students, in a way, agree with this sentiment. Students and educators quoted in the news media have praised liberal studies for keeping students engaged, aware, and knowledgeable about current events. They remain hopeful that the youth’s protests can achieve change in regards to keeping Hong Kong’s autonomy in tact (May and Qin). Academic articles have been written about the impact of the liberal curriculum on Hong Kong youth activism since the protests began (Lee). They have cited higher political engagement as youth “become more sophisticated” and educated about politics through school (Osman, et al 7-9).
The youth in Hong Kong have also grown up in a different culture from the older generations and they have come to see themselves differently. Today’s youth in Hong Kong were just born or were very young when Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese. While they were not born in British-owned Hong Kong, they understand that Hong Kong citizens are unique from mainland Chinese citizens in terms of language and way of life. Despite the fact that Hong Kong has a lot of historical basis with China, and is a land with many Chinese descendants, the present Hong Kong has become disconnected from China. The official languages of Hong Kong are Cantonese and English while the official language of China is Mandarin, two different dialects of Chinese (“Hong Kong – the Facts.”; “How Many Languages Are Spoken in China?”). In addition, the generations that have grown up in Hong Kong and China have grown up under different government, economic, and social environments (Higgins). The young population has come to view themselves as “Hong Kongers”, not simply Chinese (Ives and Li). In addition, the young Hong Kong protestors have showcased more of a desire to advocate for freedoms over settling down, working, buying a home, and making a living, a way of life and thinking that differs from the older generation (Chow).
Perceptions on Protests by Older Generations
The presence of young activists in Hong Kong elicits a variety of responses from parents and the older generation. Some of the sentiments are highlighted in a 2017 Netflix documentary that followed Joshua Wong, the student protester mentioned previously. In the documentary, Steve Tsang, a political scientist and historian, states:
This new generation of young people in Hong Kong are different from their parents’ and their grandparents’ generation. They came of age with Hong Kong as part of China and they are understanding that they are very different from their compatriots coming from the north of the border. They develop a clear, strong sense of identity as Hong Kongers. (Piscatella)
However, there are members of the older generation who sympathize with the young protestors and have claimed that the protests have helped them find their own political fire. Others in the older generation have expressed shame at not doing enough when they were young themselves. One 69-year old interviewee said: “We feel sorry that we have put them in this situation, we have not done enough. So we owe it to them to support them now. I admire them for their courage, for coming out to stand up for themselves,” (Leicester).
Those in the older generation cited the desire to focus on their careers and make money rather than protest for things like free elections in their younger years, as well as the naivety in believing that China would actually leave Hong Kong untouched until 2047. This older generation had parents who had fled the communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, yet the better life they experienced in Hong Kong caused this generation to grow up believing that ‘“the communists, communist China, are not the same anymore”’ and that Hong Kong was safe. The older generation had some who celebrated with pride when British rule ended, yet 2019 has left them with diminishing, if not entirely eroded, trust in regards to mainland China (Leicester).
In comparison to the younger generation, the older generations lived in a British Hong Kong where citizens felt a deeper resonation with their mainland Chinese counterparts; they lived feeling disconnected from the British who did not speak Chinese nor understand their culture:
Under British colonial rule, most people in Hong Kong, including fierce anti-Communists, felt undeniably Chinese in the face of a system run at its highest levels by Britons who often couldn’t speak their language, didn’t know much about their culture and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle far beyond the reach of all but the richest Chinese tycoons (Higgins).
In an interview with the New York Times, Lee Yee, a retired magazine editor from Hong Kong stated: “People, particularly the young, are just not interested in China. They don’t care.” Meaning to say that, when the older generation was younger, China was fascinating and viewed in a more positive light because they retained a sense of common identity with their Chinese counterparts at the time. “…the…obvious foreignness and colonial arrogance [of the British] helped solidify a shared sense of being part of China among their subjects…” (Higgins). Meanwhile, the younger “Hong Kongers” do not view China in the same light, and would rather have Beijing stay out of their affairs. He goes on to say that rather than being an exciting topic these days, the mention of China now causes people to feel either “indifference” or “contempt” (Higgins). This contempt has been a part of the fuel for the young protestors’ protests. Lee Yee has been a “prominent commentator on Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwan politics, as well as the global scene, for over half a century” (“Living and Learning in Hong Kong”).
In the movements starting in 2012 until the present day protests, Hong Kong’s youth have been defying the older population’s wishes for them to stay out of politics and focus on school. To the youth of 2014 and the youth of 2019, Chinese domination was, and is, such a concern that it overshadows everything else. During a speech in which Joshua rallies a group of students for a strike, he says: “Our parents say that joining this student strike will ruin our future. But what sort of future will we have under the current political system? Students need to show the adults that they don’t make all the rules” (Piscatella).
The Hong Kong youth believe that to protect their future, they have to put a pause on the future their parents wish for them. Joshua led a movement in the midst of the 2012 protests, which ended up being the first movement to achieve its goal in stopping China from implementing its policies, eliminating mandatory Chinese nationalist education, and the first to be led by a high school student (Piscatella). Despite the success of the movement, government officials, pro-Beijing politicians, adults, and parents maintain that schools should not be the place for political expression by student protestors in Hong Kong (Ramzy and Qin). Young protestors have reported having a falling out with their parents over their engagement with the protests and differing political opinions (Chow).
Some in the older generation also have the opinion that the young protestors are being coerced into protesting because of “foreign interference”, and that the young are only out protesting because they are being paid to do so. A member of a Hong Kong-based movement, the Reclaiming Social Work Movement, said the following about the older generation: “They think they know best. They believe that people would only do something if they are paid… But young people prioritize freedom and justice over money and food,” (Chow).
Although they are those in the older generation who support the protests, as well as the youth in them, there are those who oppose them whether it is because of differing political opinions, or because they are parents who wish for their children to stay out of danger and focus on school and getting a job.
Discussion: The Youth Bulge
What is the significance of the Hong Kong youth leading current protests? The concept of the youth bulge is important in dissecting this question. Although there are different definitions of the youth bulge, John R. Weeks and Debbie L. Fugate define the youth bulge as what happens when a large proportion of the population falls into the age range of about 15-29 years old (2). In the Hong Kong protests, most protestors fall within the working age range, those between about 15-54 years old. According to 2019-2020 statistics, a little over 50% of the population falls into the working age population. Those between 15 and 29 years of age account for 30% of this working age population. The fact that the youth contributes a significant percentage of the working population makes characteristics of the youth bulge applicable (“Population Estimates.”).
Richard P. Cincotta, a demographer and population biologist, states that countries with a large youth bulge tend to be at a higher risk for political violence and civil conflict (177). Hong Kong is currently going through an increasingly violent political uprising with youth taking the lead. Cincotta goes on to say that a youth bulge also leads to “youth cultures” with distinct identities. Youth tend to be risk-takers when placed in an environment where the “regime’s legitimacy is strained and the political mobilization of young men is relatively easy” (177). Hundreds of thousands of youth in Hong Kong have risked being arrested, beaten by police, and their education. They have shut down public transportation, disobeyed orders from the government, destroyed public property, and burned the Chinese flag, among other things, and continue to make demands of their government. Demands including the withdrawal of the extradition bill, greater autonomy from China, and more democracy.
In discussing the youth bulge, Norman B. Ryder, a demographer and sociologist, adds to the discussion with the concept of cohorts. These are groups of people defined by a similar age or the shared experience of an event; each cohort is distinct from others (18). He goes on to say that “new cohorts provide the opportunity for social change to occur.” (17) The Hong Kong youth, as mentioned previously, are a unique group. They have come of age just after Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese and come from a Western-influenced environment that is slowly being taken over by China against their will. Academic articles have cited the “growing sense of local identity and citizenship” among Honk Kong youth (Wong and Chu 343).
Ryder also argues that the youth lead movements that encourage political change during unstable times. The youth of Hong Kong have sparked massive change and public disturbance such as halting mandatory national education, pushing the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, to withdraw the extradition bill entirely, and even shutting down the Hong Kong airport (Victor and Yuhas). Youth protests began as early as 2012 and lasted throughout 2014, forming the Umbrella Movement. Since then, youth protests have only continued and expanded, and students have started to organize protests and riots on and off campuses.
In addition, cohorts of young people who are old enough to participate in a movement but not old enough to be tied down by an occupation, a personal home, spouses, or children, have the most potential when it comes to motivating change. They are more likely to question the status quo and think radically (Ryder 23-24). The Hong Kong youth have done nothing less than challenge the status quo. They have quit their jobs, put their education on the back burner, and have placed fighting for independence over finding jobs and plans to buy a house. It is not just a conflict between the citizens and their government; Hong Kongers are challenging the most powerful country in Asia, China (Kirby).In regards to the older population, Ryder argues that social change does not affect the older population as directly as the youth because they:
…lead a more restricted social life, they read less, they attend fewer movies, and their friends, books and movies are more carefully chosen to conform to their biases. Their residences and their friendships become more stable. The longer a person persists in an established mode of conduct, the less likely its comprehensive redefinition, especially if he invests it more normative content (35).
Ryder also discusses how solidarity is enforced within cohorts by “idealized self-definitions in reaction to ill-specified rights and responsibilities” and by the shared struggle experienced when dealing with change that “encourage the development of attitudes unsanctioned by family or community” (29). Despite all ages of the population participating in the protests, the Hong Kong youth have become the catalyst of change in these domestic movements. They have bonded together through a shared identity as Hong Kongers and have been motivated by each other, their liberal education, and by past successful movements. The youth have taken risks, challenged their government, and have not backed down because they have little to lose in terms of familial and work obligations and they believe that they are fighting for their future. The youth of Hong Kong have sparked change that will have continued effects.
The questions posed at the beginning of this paper were: why are Hong Kong youth taking such a dominant role in the movement? What are the implications of this movement being led by young people?
The youth in Hong Kong are taking a dominant role in the protests for several reasons: they make up a significant portion of the working population, they have grown up in a unique point in history that has created a separate identity, causing them to view themselves both independent of the British and the Chinese, and instead as Hong Kongers. It is also a unique time in which they are struggling against China who is trying to change the society they have grown up in. The youth are also educated and motivated to participate in politics through their unique liberal education that keeps them engaged and up-to-date on current events.
The older population remains less active in the protests for several reasons. They grew up during a time in which they felt a deeper cultural connection to mainland China than their British counterparts that did not speak their language or understand their culture; they come from a time when China was a welcomed and exciting topic because the British were unfamiliar. In addition, the older population usually consists of people settled down with families, households, and businesses which make up their primary concerns. They have to remain careful with their interactions with the police, the Hong Kong government, and the Chinese government. The youth are simply willing to risk more due to their different circumstances.
As far as the implications of a movement led by young people, the Hong Kong movement showcases the political force a young population can have. They have organized protests of hundreds of thousands, have shut down public spaces, have started running for office, have gotten the attention of government officials and people across the world, successfully kept China’s implementation of nationalist education out of Hong Kong, and got the extradition bill that sparked the current movement withdrawn formally. The Hong Kong youth have been catalysts for so much change in just the past seven years and they are still going forward in full force. Some youth leaders are even running for seats in the legislature (Yiu-man). As a youth-led movement, the Hong Kong protests have the power to change the future. Youth can take the necessary risks to fight back against Beijing’s continued advancements to diminish Hong Kong’s autonomy, they are innovative, and their passion leads the movement because they are fighting for the future and future generations. They are the future.
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