Social and Political Activism of Hong Kong Students 1968-1979

Terrie Ng is a PhD student of History at the University of Rennes 1, in France. His thesis focuses on the history of 1970s student mobilisation in Hong Kong. Here he reflects on his initial thoughts and findings from his archive research.

Student activism in Hong Kong awakened in the dusk of the 1967 leftist riots and flourished throughout the decade of the 1970s. Hong Kong, a former crown colony of the United Kingdom, survived the year of 1967 holding off the spread of a traumatic Chinese Cultural Revolution, though its wider consequences indubitably impacted subsequent social movements within the territory. Whilst political conflicts with mainland China subsided, the Hong Kong Chinese became more aware of their complex identity as citizens of this British territory they called ‘home’. To make their voice heard by the undemocratic colonial government, a young generation of university elites manifest actively their interest about deep-rooted social problems such as corruption, social welfare and cultural identity. Meanwhile, only influential businessmen were invited to the government’s decision-making process through what King called ‘administrative absorption’.[1] How could the general public, especially students who were inspired by local and global activism, participate in the discussion on political and social reforms?

Source: Hong Kong Federation of Students, ed. Xianggang Xuesheng Yundong Huigu 香港學生運動回顧. Hong Kong: Guang Jiao Jing Chu Ban She 廣角鏡出版社, 1983.

After the eight-month-long civil unrest of 1967, the Chinese in Hong Kong learnt to express their grievances effectively in the form of organised protest. Students were consistently found at the forefront of protests in the 1970s, as their interest in political and social affairs grew significantly soon after 1967. Meanwhile, the ferocious Cultural Revolution did not come to an end until 1976, attracting many aspiring Hong Kong students to the thriving ‘new China’. As a result, two major camps of opposite ideologies – the Chinese quintessential faction and the Social actionist faction – took shape within Hong Kong’s two main universities (the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong). 

In view of the important role of students in social movements throughout history, I opt to focus on student activism in 1970s Hong Kong, which is often neglected when it comes to discussions about colonial governance of the territory. In this study of Hong Kong’s contemporary protest history, the span of 1970s will be defined as the time period between the end of the 1967 civil disturbances and the demonstration in support of the Yau Ma Tei boat people in 1979. Only events that have taken place within Hong Kong’s territory will be examined. This research acknowledges the ‘historicity’, as Touraine evoked, that young Hong Kong activists created through student-led movements in the 1970s, but what does their activism really represent in the specific context of that time period?[2] And what do these decade-long student movements mean to Hong Kong nowadays? 

In previous scholarly work on the ‘big history’ of Hong Kong, Hong Kong student activism is rarely attributed as a driving force for either social or state reform. Tsang has detailed the struggle of a group of pro-China students in response to the rise and fall of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but rarely mentioned those who adamantly advocated a clean and just police force on Hong Kong’s territory.[3] Carroll opted to focus on the city’s economic and social development under the administration of Governor MacLehose in the 1970s, but student activism was never credited as an important contribution to the results.[4] The driving interest of this study is to fill up the absence of student activism in Hong Kong history, and uncover the connections between the activism of Hong Kong students and the ensuing reforms of the anachronistic colonial regime during the 1970s. To formulate my research question around these discrepancies, I attempt to ask: how has student activism pushed forward social and political reforms of MacLehose’s government in the 1970s? 

This qualitative research will be conducted fundamentally based on primary sources such as archival materials from the UK National Archives, the Public Records Office of Hong Kong, and the diplomatic archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France, in addition to student publications from universities and student-led organisations. This research will employ a hybrid of historical and socio-cultural approaches to investigate the emergence and formation of the student-led ideological factions, more importantly, the actual influence of student activism behind political and social reforms in the 1970s Hong Kong, and how through protests Hong Kong people endeavoured to define and recognise their unique identity.

In the course of my preliminary review of historical documents from the aforementioned archives, signs are found suggesting that the MacLehose government both directly and indirectly responded to student activists’ grievances by means of advancing a multi-annual reform. Concurrently, the passion of Hong Kong students on social and political issues is well exhibited by the vast number of articles written and published on student magazines and the lively debates around them, as well as by the frequency of corresponding events organised. This colourful chapter of Hong Kong history will be methodically reconstructed and given the historical value it should deserve. 

[1] Ambrose Yeo-chi King, ‘Administrative Absorption of Politics in Hong Kong: Emphasis on the Grass Roots Level’, Far Eastern Survey 15, no. 5 (1 May 1975): 422–39,
[2] Alain Touraine, La Voix et Le Regard (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1978).
[3] Steve Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004).
[4] John M. Carroll, A Concise History of Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007).