Thousands of university students converged on the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Monday at the start of a week-long boycott of classes in protest at Beijing’s decision to limit electoral reforms.
Under two large black and white banners hanging from a nearby building, an estimated 13,000 students crowded into the main concourse of the university on the first day of the long-publicized strike, many of them under brightly colored umbrellas to ward off the summer sun.
“Disobey: take charge of your fate,” read one banner. “The strike must go ahead,” proclaimed the other.
“Keep taking orders without speaking out, and our city will die a silent death,” read another banner posted on to the #HKStudentStrike hashtag on Twitter.
The demonstration marked the first day of a strike sparked by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s ruling out of public nominations of candidates in the 2017 elections for the next chief executive of the former British colony.
Students from more than 20 Hong Kong colleges and universities sat on the ground, dressed in white and bedecked in yellow ribbons and headbands, some of which read: “The people are in charge.”
“To strike is to refuse to sit on the sidelines,” Alex Chow, chairman of the influential Hong Kong Federation of Students, told the crowd.
“This strike is the first step as we exert pressure by fighting back.”
He called on the people of Hong Kong to “reflect on their destiny.”
“This strike is a call to resistance from the younger generation to the older,” Chow said. “We won’t take orders … because we want to be in charge of our own fate!”
He said student groups would intensify their protests if calls for public nomination of election candidates, which China has said must be approved by an election committee loyal to Beijing, weren’t heeded.
Hong Kong students last mobilized en masse in opposition to Beijing’s bid to introduced “patriotic education” into the territory’s schools.
But the city’s students aren’t generally known for their rebellious attitudes or radical politics.
One lecturer at the university wrote on Facebook that a number of her students had contacted her to ask permission to take part.
A Chinese University medical student surnamed Chan said he had attended Monday’s protest in spite of fears that skipping class would affect his grades.
“As a medical student, my taking part in this boycott will affect my attendance, and possibly my future career, so there’s a definite price to pay,” he said.
“But I will still be taking part in the coming days.”
Meanwhile, philosophy professor Lo Ping-cheung said he had turned out to support the students.
“We wanted to come in person to support them, because they told us in advance, and we will make allowances for that,” Lo said.
“We are videotaping our lectures to put onto a DVD, so that the striking students will be able to review them later,” he added.
Not far from the crowd stood a replica of the Goddess of Democracy raised by protesting students in Tiananmen Square before the movement was crushed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in June 1989, symbolizing the role played by the Chinese University in focusing dissent and calls for democracy among Hong Kong students.
Yvonne Leung, president of the Hong Kong University student union, told RFA many had come because they felt they had no other option left.
“I think a lot of students realize that we have got to the stage where, if we don’t come out in a bid to save Hong Kong, then no one else is going to,” Leung said.
“We are hoping through this boycott of classes to encourage more people to join our movement,” she said.
“We think more and more people will join our gatherings between now and Friday,” Leung said. “We want students to know that there is still something they can do.”
“They aren’t totally powerless in the wake of the Aug. 31 [announcement on the 2017 election arrangements],” she said.
Chan Kin-man, co-founder of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement whose unofficial referendum in June drew some 800,000 votes in favor of public nomination, said he was “encouraged” by the student movement, although Occupy had had no hand in it.
“The students have run this strike entirely independently, although some people have said Occupy was leading the younger generation along,” Chan said. “But they have underestimated the determination of these young people.”
“We all feel more hopeful … because they are keeping the spirit of democracy alive,” Chan added.
The Hong Kong government said in a statement that the students’ dissent is part of the territory’s political pluralism, while recognizing their “ambition and persistence.”
“The issue of political system development has been complicated and controversial, so it’s understandable that different groups in the society hold different opinions and arguments, which is also a normal phenomenon in Hong Kong’s diversified society,” the statement said.
Under the terms of a 1984 treaty signed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the British government, Hong Kong was promised a “high degree of autonomy” following its 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
But many say Beijing, which has warned Hong Kong it can never enjoy full autonomy, is putting heavy-handed pressure on the territory’s once-free-wheeling media, and wielding increasing influence in every area of citizens’ lives.
Pro-democracy campaigners say they are now fighting to preserve the city’s traditional values, amid a growing number of attacks on, and sackings of, outspoken media figures.
Occupy Central has vowed to keep up an ongoing campaign of protest and civil disobedience to protect Hong Kong’s judicial independence, freedom of association and expression.
Organizers have said they could stage their next major demonstration on China’s Oct. 1 National Day holiday.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.