Academics back students’ pro-democracy shut down

Hong Kong’s universities and colleges – almost 20 of them – are gearing up for a student organised pro-democracy boycott of classes due to begin on 22 September and to last at least a week, with academics supporting the student movement.

Academics called on teachers to be lenient in dealing with student absences, to avoid scheduling important tests during the boycott, to help student strikers keep up with class work and wear yellow ribbons to show solidarity.

More than 500 academics, researchers and university administrators from 20 institutions in Hong Kong signed a statement backing the pro-democracy movement and expressing “extreme disappointment and indignation” at Beijing’s stance restricting Hong Kong people’s choices in electing their own representatives in 2017.

Beijing’s recent proposals, which have sparked anger and demonstrations in Hong Kong, “would allow an undemocratically constituted nominating committee to manipulate who could be nominated as candidates for the 2017 chief executive election”, the 520 academics said in the joint statement issued on 14 September.

“When we look back at history, both in China and overseas, we see that student movements have been an important force in pushing for social progress. Our hope in Hong Kong’s future lies in the passion and spirit shown by our young people and their willingness to take up the mantle in the fight for democracy and social justice,” the academics said.

Unreasonable smears

They noted that students had been subjected “to unreasonable smears and attacks”, referring to a member of the pro-Beijing Alliance for Peace and Democracy, Wong Kwan-yu, a union leader who said on a radio show last week that those organising the university boycotts and strikes were like “triad gangs”, or Chinese organised crime gangs.

“Do not let them [the students] stand alone to face the ‘white terror’; give them our staunchest support and protection. During the class boycott action, every student should have freedom from fear,” the academics said. ‘White terror’ is a term used for political repression in China.

But Wong’s attacks had focussed mainly on secondary school students who will only take part in a one-day class boycott. The pro-Beijing alliance said it had set up a hotline for the public to report on secondary schools where class boycotts occur, sparking a storm of protest among parents and teachers.

China’s Communist Party newspaper the People’s Daily played down the university administration’s role. “They have not tried to intervene or stop the strike... Their stance is to stay out of it.”

“The university authorities know that if they stop the strike, the students will show more resistance and the situation will probably grow much worse,” the newspaper said, adding:

“Hong Kong does not lack historical lessons in this regard, so the presidents of Hong Kong universities have reached a unanimous agreement that they won't employ a tit-for-tat approach to confront protesting students, but will turn a blind eye to them as long as they don't break the laws.”

Peter Mathieson, vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University, told the media after a meeting with Hong Kong’s top education civil servants this week that the Hong Kong government would not interfere in universities’ handling of the boycott.

"We totally respect that students have the freedom to express their opinions and we believe that students have only shown concern for society," said Joseph Sung, vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong .

The 520 academics said in their statement that they would set up a ‘concern group’ of university faculty members to continue to monitor the city’s democratic development and push for safeguards for Hong Kong freedoms.

Unlike China, Hong Kong enjoys freedom of speech and assembly under the ‘one country, two systems’ terms of the handover agreement between Britain and China when the former British colony was handed to Chinese rule in 1997.