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Gloria Chang
Student activists can be a powerful force for social change. Gloria Chang—president of the Students’ Union of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in 2000, when the school was the site of some major protests championing academic freedom—is perhaps the most well-known student leader of the past decade. Today, Chang devotes herself to environmental protection, working for Greenpeace for the last eight years. Chang tells Grace Tsoi about her recent trip to the North Pole and reminisces about her time as a university activist.

By Grace Tsoi | Oct 13, 2011

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  • Gloria Chang

At dawn on September 6, I embarked on a journey to Longyearbyen in Norway. It is a settlement that’s the closet you can get to the 80th parallel north. We spent four days in total on the sea ice.

The earth, by default, is peaceful and beautiful. I was awed by the pureness and simplicity of the North Pole. It is like a silent call from the earth, and it’s such a big contrast when humans do so many sinful things to harm the environment.

Environmental protection is about public interest: fresh air; clean water; safe food and stable weather. It concerns everyone. By defending the earth’s resources, we help make a more just world.

When there is a natural disaster, it is always the poorest and most defenseless people that suffer the most. This is very unjust, because they are less polluting, less wasteful and have a lower carbon footprint.

More people are now talking about environmental justice. It is the most fundamental form of politics, and it is about interest redistribution. It is, in nature, the same as fighting for a more democratic government, a fair and free environment in which everyone can compete equally.

In July 2000, Robert Chung [the Director of the Public Opinion Programme at HKU] wrote an article in the newspaper, saying that he felt  pressure from the school and that he couldn’t objectively continue his study on governance [following an HKU-led public opinion poll that gave unfavorable views of the city’s leaders at the time, Chung alleged that then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa had leaned on him and other university heads to discontinue the study]. At that time, people thought very poorly of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. So it was easy for the public to link the two facts, and everyone became very concerned within a short time.

So we staged a protest outside the residence of the vice-chancellor for 16 hours [or so]. I didn’t count, but we stayed overnight. It was raining that night, and we looked very miserable. The public became sympathetic to our cause.

The then-vice-chancellor had flown to Canada for some alumni activities. We told the External Relations Office that we knew he would return to Hong Kong and that we would find him at the airport. We wanted to give him our petition letter on spot.

The vice-chancellor wasn’t willing to do so and he played hide-and-seek with us. When we arrived, he snuck out through the VIP channel. We then returned to campus, and External Relations told us that the vice-chancellor was exhausted and he had to do some medical check-ups with professors from the school of medicine. So we staged a protest outside his residence.

Things might have turned out better for the vice-chancellor if he made a token gesture, such as offering us hot drinks. He didn’t. After that night, public sentiment was totally against him.

About Tsui Lap-chee [current vice-chancellor of HKU]—I was actually there that night [during the vigil on August 26 protesting the stringent security measures surrounding Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang’s campus visit]. He stood outside for three hours. He is definitely sincere, but he couldn’t explain himself well, and he didn’t offer any measures to prevent such things from happening again.

The nickname “Little Chili”? I feel thankful—at least it’s positive recognition.

I have gained some weight now, but I used to be very thin. My image stood out because I was such a petite figure working against a strong power. If you search for pictures online, you will come across a picture of me holding a loudspeaker in front of the gate at the vice-chancellor’s residence.

But it was an illusion. That year, a lot of people worked alongside me. We worked hard together towards the same goal. We tried to drive the change, drive the discussion. I was only a small potato.  

In the past, people taking part in social movements shared some common bottom line, and people respected collective decisions.

As activists, there are some boundaries to make. You have to justify your actions, and consider what you want to achieve. If you think that large-scale disruption and losing control are the only ways to achieve your goals, it will be difficult to win support. Even with sporadic incidents of losing control, social movements fail. The focus is shifted. People only see the anger, and fail to see the problems behind the emotions.

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