Students for Liberty model catches on in Hong Kong

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Alexander McCobin, president and co-founder of Students for Liberty, says pro-liberty students should put aside their disagreements and fight together for a free society.

In Hong Kong, some are all too willing to make hay out of any connection of inspiration to outside groups. A US-based institution that helps students abroad stand for liberty may sound suspicious to those wary of ‘foreign influence’, a term loaded with local political significance – and usually little substance. Worldly young Hong Kongers see things differently and are willing to take inspiration from successful, principled organisations, no matter their pedigree.

Build it, and they will come

One such source of inspiration is the Students for Liberty. Visiting Hong Kong, the founder and visiting president of Students for Liberty (SFL), Alexander McCobin, recalls the early days of the group, now arguably the largest student and libertarian organisation in the world. First established in 2008 as a volunteer body, the SFL was not ambitious to expand beyond its national border, but focused on providing supports to local student groups that share their libertarian values.

“We didn’t want to go global in the beginning,” Mr McCobin says. “We asked other people about the idea and the general advice was not to do it. And we didn’t know what we could offer to other student groups as foreigners.”

It was the overseas groups, as it turned out, that came to seek SFL’s guidance and assistance in leadership and organisational issues so they could replicate the success of the American student movement.

Of the students, by the students, for the students

The result is the world’s fastest growing and most influential student and alumni-led platform with about 2,300 affiliated groups. Only about 1,000 are based in the US. There are eight regional executive boards with charter members in every inhabited continent. Their annual international and regional conferences attract hundreds of thousands of participants throughout the year, expanding the libertarian community. Three weeks from now, thousands are expected to attend the 9th International Students for Liberty Conference (ISFLC16) in Washington, DC, featuring Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot (famed for earning the ire of officials and jail time for their views and antics), North Korean defector and human rights activist Park Yeon-mi, and Prince Hans-Adams II, reigning Prince of Liechtenstein.

“Instead of going into local political and policies, we focus on providing leadership training to students,” Mr McCobin says, “Each individual organisation has its own view of what liberty means, and our mission is to help them achieve their goals.”

Mr McCobin cites the successful story of the SFL’s Brazilian branch, where local students took a leading role in sparking protests against economic stagnation and corruption in the country.

To Hong Kong student leaders: Much to learn, you still have

Mr McCobin explains the recipe to minimise the impact of internal conflicts among the 2,300 groups is a decentralised approach, a people-oriented ‘life project’ and, most importantly, a stress on mutual respect among member groups. The focus on training individuals is crucial as leadership in university groups changes rapidly as student leaders graduate. Training individual leaders enables them to more effectively promote freedom and perhaps,  as alumni, contribute to SFL’s continued efforts.

It’s a big tent approach. “You need a moral high ground to unite everyone within the group, and for us it is the three big principles of economic liberty, social liberty and intellectual liberty,” Mr McCobin adds. “There is no place in the world that has no internal fighting. Our doctrine is that we come together on the 90% we agree upon, and respect each other [on the 10% on which] we may disagree.”

Hong Kong is a newcomer to the SFL family. Only a few months ago, the first Hong Kong student, Louis Lo, joined the SFL’s Charter Teams programme, an initiative to build networks with students in places without a well-established SFL presence. Mr Lo recently concluded SFL Hong Kong’s second seminar in Hong Kong. Outside of the normal pro-establishment, pro-democracy continuum, it is attracting students interested in options during a time of political and intellectual ferment in Hong Kong.

While Hong Kong students may be famously academic, Mr McCobin is a believer in experience. “You sometimes learn more outside of class,” he concludes.