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Student Movements: A Subject of Human Geography

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By Sim Tack

As student protests in Hong Kong continue, memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations naturally spring to mind. Less iconic but no less notable were the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which began as a student movement; the 2007 Venezuelan protests, which started with a group of students demanding constitutional reform; and the 1929 protests in Paris, which challenged the role of churches in education.

Of course, each student movement is unique; the one underway in Hong Kong concerns Hong Kong affairs, not widespread democratic reform in China proper. And yet all such movements share characteristics that transcend borders, making them an ideal phenomenon through which to study geopolitics.

Student protests lay bare the social and cultural layers that move beneath the surface of geopolitics, much like subsurface currents flow beneath the waves of the oceans. Human geography forms the foundation of society and thus the systems that govern it. Even if we regard the state as the highest level of global policymaking and interaction, these social undercurrents are what move the generations, ideologies and cultural changes that shape the constraints under which states operate.

Patterns Emerge

From ethnic and religious sects to socio-economic divisions, human geography is as important to a state as the physical topography and resources that constitute it. Human geography exists in all states, and as with physical geography, revelatory, even educational, patterns emerge over time.

The way in which the ruled rise up against the rulers is one such pattern. These kinds of movements take a variety of forms, from peaceful demonstrations and strikes to violent insurgencies. Of these, student protests are perhaps the most intriguing because of the unique position in society that students occupy — they are at the vanguard of a generation that often differs markedly from that of their forebears. It is at this fault line that competing ideologies and changing cultural identities collide.

That they are students means they are intellectually engaged, frequently espousing distinct political beliefs. But to be successful, student movements must galvanize the other areas of civil society. In that regard, they are often a good catalyst for change. Students are already grouped together at universities, often in urban areas, enabling student campaigns to evolve into broader protest movements. Of course, social media has made physical congregation somewhat obsolete, but proximity still simplifies the logistics of political action.

Even under ideal circumstances, student movements can fail, and indeed history is rife with failure. But more often than not, student uprisings tend to be part of longer-term social, cultural or political change. After all, when student protests disappear, students themselves often go on to become part of a more mature generation that retains much of its ideological conviction.

Think, for example, of the May 1968 movement that shook France and several other countries in Europe. Despite failing to achieve many of its goals as it occupied university buildings in Paris, the baby boomer generation later became part of post-graduate society, fomenting far-reaching social and cultural change throughout Europe as the ideas of the New Left continued to bleed into the mainstream.

When a student movement fails to create change, oftentimes it will join or be subsumed by an existing political movement, acting either as a force that advances change or one that that highlights the continuation of ongoing social trends. France's revolution in June 1832 is a prime example. The notion of popular sovereignty had been in place ever since the French Revolution ended the monarchy. The return of the monarchy in 1814, after Napoleon's fall, however, ultimately compelled students to take to the streets in what was essentially an extension of the very same social pressures that had dominated the internal evolution of France for more than three decades. These particular protests in 1832, eternalized in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, were struck down. But the underlying desires of the masses persisted, culminating in 1848, when the "Year of Revolution" saw the final collapse of the monarchy in France and generated a broader wave of social change throughout Europe.

Student campaigns have by no means been relegated to Europe. The United States witnessed profound student activism during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the anti-war movement brought about countless protests. At its core was a demographic shift — the baby boom, which spawned the primary group challenging policy at the time. Of course, these movements did not end the war in Vietnam; they barely convinced Washington to end the draft. But they exemplified the trends of the time, namely, the introduction of a new generation with a distinct ideology.

When student movements emulate broader social unrest, the results can be dramatic. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution radically changed the political identity of the country, facilitated in part by students who stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The ensuing hostage crisis united many sections of Iranian society in support of the revolution. Ironically, it was this generation of students that put down a later generation of students during the 2009-2010 Green Revolution.

A Society in Motion

Even prior to the current Hong Kong protests, China has had a rich history of student activism influencing society. In fact, the establishment of the People's Republic of China itself had its roots in student movements: Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai discovered socialism and began to organize politically as student leaders in the early 20th century. In 1919, the May 4th Movement, which grew out of student demonstrations, arguably ushered in what would become the beginning of China's contemporary history when it lashed out against Beijing's response to the Treaty of Versailles.

Students were also at the forefront of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. They helped reinforce the personality cult of Mao as Chinese citizens revolted against capitalism and traditional Chinese culture. It was student repudiation of university leaders accused of opposing the Chinese Communist Party that initiated the actual protests, which in turn started the Cultural Revolution — something much larger than a student cause, to say the least.  

Considering China's long history — and the history of student movements — the current protests in Hong Kong will not be the last time China faces social unrest. As a one-party state with immense geographic, social and economic diversity, China has faced significant calls for reform throughout the years. And the Communist Party will inevitably face more pressure as China changes. For China's is a society in motion: It is creating an urban middle class as its economy matures. Rising urbanization and private consumption have altered the interests and expectations of Chinese citizens, and as expectations rise, so too will pressure on the government to meet those demands.

Along with the emergence of a Chinese urban consumer class, there has been a veritable explosion in the number of students in China as higher education has expanded over the past decade. China is spending more money on higher education to create an educated work force better suited for the economy to which China aspires. But creating more students creates more opportunities for social unrest. The ability of these students to function the way China intends hinges heavily on the performance of the Chinese economy. If economic growth slows, the potential for unrest hastens.

It is difficult to gauge the ultimate effect of the protests in Hong Kong. Still, the student activism there reminds us why these subjects of society are well-suited to protest. Because of their position in the human geography, students will often be at the front of generational changes in their respective societies, even if they are not always the most decisive agents of change.

Editor's Note: Writing in George Friedman's stead this week is Military Analyst Sim Tack.

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