Students to ‘boycott’ classes in pro-democracy protest

Students have announced a ‘boycott’ of classes at 11 Hong Kong universities – though with the consent of the universities themselves – as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement heats up in anger over Beijing’s failure to allow genuinely free election of the city’s leaders.

The boycotts would last at least seven days from mid-September, said Federation of Students Secretary-general Alex Chow. The federation called on lecturers to support students who join the class boycott by offering to tutor them.

Hong Kong’s top universities – including the University of Hong Kong or HKU, the Chinese University of Hong Kong or CUHK, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and several others – have said in response to the ‘boycott’ call that students can take time out to participate in protests and rallies.

CUHK Vice-chancellor Joseph Sung said in a statement that the university respected students' feelings and opinions. “This is a university and we allow an open forum for speech and expression of attitude,” he said, adding that he hoped student groups would discuss their plans with university officials to minimise disruption.

Pro-democracy academics

Meanwhile, a number of academics are leaders of the pro-democracy movements and will also be joining stepped-up protests against China’s handling of elections in Hong Kong.

They include Benny Tai, an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong who leads Occupy Central with Love and Peace – Occupy Central for short – a pro-democracy group that launched a campaign of civil disobedience in Hong Kong’s Central financial district at the weekend.

His co-organiser is a professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Chan Kin-man.

Thousands joined a march in July and the Occupy Central rally on Sunday 31 August, calling for genuine universal suffrage for Hong Kong elections instead of the model Beijing seeks to impose in 2017 of pre-vetting candidates and allowing only those it approves of to stand.

Some two dozen people were arrested during largely peaceful protests this week.

Young people

With many businessmen in Hong Kong’s vibrant China-dependent economy willing to pander to Beijing in order to preserve their economic interests, it has fallen to academics and young people – including teenagers still at secondary school – to make up the main body of protesters calling for change.

Among them is Scholarism, a group founded by student Joshua Wong in 2011, when he was still just 15 and in high school, to fight a then proposed ‘National Education’ curriculum about China for secondary schools, which was seen as an attempt to inculcate Communist Party ideology in Hong Kong school children.

Hong Kong was a British Colony until 1997, when it was handed back to China under the ‘one country, two systems’ rule. Hong Kong was allowed to keep its freedoms, open economy and political system, and is highly sensitive to any attempts to impose the Mainland China system on the city.

The student federation’s Chow said he did not believe the Beijing government would immediately back down and give Hong Kong universal suffrage when the strikes take place later this month.

“But the purpose is to wake up people from across the city. Even the students have come out, and so the rest of Hong Kongers should stand united as well,” he said in a local radio interview last week.

The Occupy Central movement has said it will take over the Central financial district of Hong Kong on an unspecified date. In a press release on 31 August it said it would consider occupying the district as a last resort, “an action to be taken only if all chances of dialogue have been exhausted and there is no other choice.

“We are very sorry to say that today all chances of dialogue have been exhausted and the occupation of Central will definitely happen.”

Beijing fears democracy movements like Occupy Central could spread and ‘infect’ the mainland. The dominance of student groups calls to mind China’s student-led Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, rally participants said last week.

Academic experts

Li Fei, chair of the basic law committee in China’s quasi-parliament, the National People’s Congress, which oversees Hong Kong’s Basic Law or mini-constitution, said the goal of the system China wanted to impose on Hong Kong was intended to “reduce the risks involved in universal suffrage.

“One, it reduces the risk of political confrontation. Two, it cuts the risk of a constitutional crisis. And three, it minimises the risk of populism.”

A decision passed by the standing committee of the National People's Congress, or NPCSC, last month states that only two to three candidates are permitted to stand for Hong Kong elections, and that each must win the backing of at least half of the nominating committee – which will be composed overwhelmingly of Beijing loyalists.

China attempted to bolster its position citing the ‘independent’ view of legal academics from its top universities.

“I hope the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong can realise that the decision by the NPCSC is the basis for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, and anything that deviates from the decision will not lead to universal suffrage and consensus on that,” said Rao Geping, professor of law at Peking University.

Another top academic, Wang Zhenmin, dean of law at Tsinghua University in Beijing, was sent to Hong Kong to explain China’s policies.

Speaking in English at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents' Club, Wang said an open vote would affect Hong Kong’s richest residents who “control the economy. Even if it is a small group of people, a very small group of people. But they control the destiny of the economy in Hong Kong. If we just ignore their interests, then Hong Kong capitalism will stop.

“So that’s why on the one hand we realise universal suffrage in Hong Kong, on the other hand we must guarantee the continued development of capitalism in Hong Kong,” Wang argued.

But Occupy Central’s Chan said in a 1 September statement, which announced a stepping up of “resistance” – the movement’s slogan – and civil disobedience: “To put it bluntly, the whole thing is just ‘handpicked politics’ under the guise of ‘universal suffrage’.

“People simply will not be deceived,” said Chan.