History Lessons

When students strike

Parallels between the Hundred Days’ Reform and the recent protest against Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill


Television images have circled the globe over the past fortnight showing masses of Hongkongers protesting against a controversial extradition law (see WiC457). On Monday, the student-led demonstrations turned chaotic as the young activists stormed the government’s legislative building, smashing glass and leaving graffiti in their wake.

China’s first ever student protest occurred more than a century earlier in 1895, and was sparked by a young man from Guangdong, the province that neighbours Hong Kong.

Students in imperial China studied for and sat the Confucian civil service exams. By the late Qing Dynasty these typically took place every three years. Those lucky enough to survive the first two levels of regional exams were called juren, or “recommended men” by their provincial governments. They would travel to Beijing for one all-important exam. Those who passed it qualified as jinshi, or “advanced scholars”. However, only one out of 100,000 ended up as a jinshi (By contrast Peking University offers admission today to three students out of every 10,000 applicants).

But there was another audacious way into officialdom: writing a letter directly to senior officials or even the emperor. These petition could be about current affairs or a radical idea for improving governance. This was the course taken by Kang Youwei, a juren from Guangdong (pictured). He co-authored a 10,000-word petition that was co-signed by 1,000 other juren. The subject was the need for deep-seated reforms after a blistering military defeat by Japan. Kang also demanded a rejection of the terms of the Qing’s surrender. China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War led to the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ceded Taiwan and parts of the empire’s northeast to Japan. It was also forced to pay 200 million taels of silver (7,500 tonnes) to the Japanese as compensation. On April 22, five days after the signing of the treaty, Kang’s petition demanded its cancellation, along with the moving of the capital to Xi’an, as well as a shake-up of the government and the army along Western lines (aping Japan’s own Meiji modernisation). Thousands of students showed their support by staging a protest near the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The young emperor Guangxu proved open to Kang’s ideas and thus began the Hundred Days of Reform. However, the radical new measures introduced were an anathema to the highly conservative Qing establishment, led by the power behind the throne, the Empress Dowager Cixi. The movement was swiftly quashed and six of the reformers were beheaded. Kang eventually fled to Sweden.

Meanwhile back in Hong Kong 13 of the student protesters were arrested this week for vandalism and other offences related to Monday’s violence (damage done to the legislative building has been estimated at $1.3 million), with the youngest arrested aged only 14. The government has suspended ‘indefinitely’ the unpopular extradition law but activists continue to demand its full withdrawal and that the head of the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam, resign.

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