Quo Vadis Student Activism? – The Missing Resistance

A famous biblical story goes that the apostle Peter, fleeing crucifixion in Rome, meets the risen Jesus, to whom he asks, “Domine, quo vadis?” – “Lord, whither goest thou?” To this, it is said that Jesus replies, “Rōmam eō iterum crucifīgī” – that he is going to Rome to be crucified again, inspiring Peter to return to Rome to preach, despite the impending repression he knew he would face at the hands of Nero.

I myself am not a Christian. Nevertheless, the phrase “Quo vadis” to me is still useful as an exemplification of resistance. It incites a reflection on one’s courage, one’s bravery, in the midst of an escape from repression.  A show of resistance against attempts to control and suppress what one’s morals convict him to do. When Peter asks, “whither goest thou”, Jesus may just as well have replied, “to resist”.

In the modern era, one cannot possibly talk about resistance without talking about students. Particularly in Asia, the student movement has been lauded for its success in bringing about democracy and liberty to areas where norms of authority and control strike deep into the cultural hearts and minds of those who inhabit it. From the 1980 Gwangju uprising in South Korea to the fall of Suharto in 1998, not to mention Tiananmen Square and the Philippines’ 1986 People Power Revolution, students have played an immense role in bringing the sweeping tides of democratisation to their homelands.

Yet if the spirit of a student activist from the early days of Asia’s democratisation had risen and taken a peek towards the state of the student movement today, their question may not be “Quo vadis”, but rather “Quo vasisti” – “where hast thee gone?”

There is no doubt that student activism still occupies a prominent position in Asia’s political landscape today. Hong Kong’s student protests against the extradition bill and student resistance towards revisions to Indonesia’s criminal code are a testament to this fact. But while it’s nice to think that the actions of students today have brought about wide and positive change, progress requires that we be more critical of our success and face the harsh reality that student activism today has yielded very limited results – that it is nowhere near as visible, effective, nor as widespread as it was in the days of our predecessors.

This begs the question: what has happened to Asia’s once powerful and politically salient student movement? What explains the dismal state of student activism in Asia today?

One possible answer to this is a change in the nature and structure of Asian society. Asia in the late twentieth century – at the height of the student movement – was marked by dictators abound. From Suharto and Marcos to Chun Doo Hwan, authoritarianism was clear and visible, manifest in the strongmen who ruled over their territories with an iron fist. The obviousness of this authoritarianism presented a clear target for resistance. The objective was clear: oust the dictators, enact free and fair elections.

Yet authoritarianism today is far more complex, far less obvious and much more dubious as a target of resistance. The single strongman, symbolic of the entire authoritarian regime, has now been replaced with the illusion of democracy: yes, a democratically elected leader, but behind him a web of patronage, money-politics and behind-the-scenes transactions that occur in lieu of citizen participation. Asia no longer has authoritarian rulers, instead authoritarian elements in its laws and institutions which seek to control the minds, bodies and movements of its citizens. Student activism against authoritarianism is no longer as simple as resisting a single man, but rather has become a fight to undo a web of corrupt institutions and embedded cultural practices. This, no doubt, presents a much more difficult challenge than what our predecessors had to face.

Albeit ironically, democracy has also brought challenges to the efficacy of the student movement. Resistance in a democracy is an inherently comfortable process. Backdropped by severe restrictions to political participation, the authoritarian era saw street demonstrations and quasi-anarchism as the only ways in which one was able to show dissent. Although disruptive, one cannot deny that the discomforting and uncomfortable nature of this process evoked an atmosphere of gravitas surrounding the student movement.

In contrast, the downfall of outward authoritarianism has meant that resistance now manifests through the comfort and stability of participatory democracy: elections, the free market, and both mainstream and social media. This expansion of participatory rights is certainly a good thing. However, what has resulted is a subduction of students to more passive and mundane forms of resistance, thus presenting limits on the student movement’s ability to sway the hearts and minds of observers.

It is not only the democratisation of political systems that has ironically depowered the student movement. The democratisation of higher education in Asia has also led to changes to the once politically salient image of the student activist. Around the world, university used to be a privilege, reserved only for the sons (and occasionally daughters) of the social and political elite. As such, there existed an ‘étudiant oblige’ – an unspoken understanding that students, being privileged in their access to higher education, have an obligation to become the voice of the powerless and spearhead their country towards development. This noble task of students was no doubt recognised by the public, whom often encouraged the political activities of students as leaders of a young nation.

Since this time, however, higher education has expanded to include not only the rich and elite but also the everyday person, with university enrolments growing by 21% since the 1970s. Mass participation has shed the student movement of its symbolic image as the noble intelligentsia. It has been depoliticised – stripped of its meaning, influence and status; reduced of its political role and bargaining power. The respect older citizens afforded towards students as a demographic no longer exists – at least not to the extent it did. An intelligent and salient image is absolutely crucial in attracting the empathy of observers towards student activists’ causes. Yet in this respect, the egalitarian effects of democratisation in Asia have again been ironically detrimental in continuing the noble image left behind by the student activists of yesteryear.

Despite these challenges, students still constitute the most fertile of grounds for pro-democratic resistance to bloom, in an Asia where authoritarian ghosts have come to return. For example, students are naturally free of the family or business ties that suppress one’s ability to be truly critical of a government. Meanwhile, universities remain bastions of knowledge, constituting a concentrated body of young and motivated intellectuals, exposed to modern ideas and easy to mobilise towards an anti-authoritarian cause.

Hence, the question to be asked is not “quo vadis”, nor “quo vasisti”, but rather “quo vades student activism?” – “whither art thee going?” It is upon us as Asian youth to learn from the lessons of our activist history and reflect on the future of how we, as students, can affect positive change in our societies through our resistance, and how to do so most effectively. For there is no doubt that an Asia with a strong student movement will be an Asia with a strong democracy.