University boycott extended as democracy movement escalates

Hong Kong university students – part of a huge, often spontaneous pro-democracy movement that has occupied the streets of central Hong Kong in recent days – said last Monday that they would extend their week-long boycott of classes to an indefinite one.

“We urge students to boycott classes indefinitely and teachers to boycott teaching,” said the statement by Hong Kong University Students' Union and Scholarism and other groups.

The week-long university strike that started on 22 September with rallies around the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, or CUHK, before spreading to central Hong Kong was to have ended on Friday 26 September with school-age students led by the campaign group Scholarism joining the strike for its final day.

Instead, huge crowds surged onto the streets that weekend and into Monday, blocking major roads. The students and public were angry about police tactics and dozens of arrests made outside Hong Kong government headquarters, where students broke through the police cordon to occupy the area late on the Friday night.

The one-week class boycott has been extended because of “violence by the police force”, said the Hong Kong Federation of Students, or HKFS, which has 60,000 members and is one of the student boycott’s largest organisers.

The boycott had been called after China last month insisted that candidates for a promised Hong Kong leadership election in 2017 would be pre-selected by representatives of China, angering pro-democracy groups. Young people are demanding genuine democracy.

HKFS and Scholarism warned that civil disobedience would spread unless Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung responded to protesters' demands by 1 October. Possible action included a general strike, and more class boycotts, they said.

Occupy Central co-founder Chan Kin-man said that if Leung announced his resignation, the occupation of the key areas in Hong Kong would stop for a short period of time before they decide on their next move.

The tactic appeared to work, with Leung holding a press conference just minutes before the student deadline at midnight on 1 October, agreeing that the administration, though not Leung himself, would hold talks with the students.

Crucially the student group did not cite Leung's resignation as a prerequisite for the talks, adding that political reform was the only topic of discussion. So far, a day has not been set for the talks to begin and protesters continued in the streets the following day in pouring rain.


The protests escalated after pro-democracy legislators, professors and student leaders were arrested during the police action at the government offices on that Saturday morning, among them Alex Chow and Lester Shum, leaders of HKFS, three Hong Kong legislators and the convener of the Alliance for True Democracy, Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at Hong Kong’s City University.

Thousands poured onto Hong Kong’s main arteries demanding their release – in particular the release of Joshua Wong, 17, leader of Scholarism, a group of high-school students. Yvonne Leung, president of the Hong Kong University’s student union told media that Wong had been dragged away by police on Saturday morning.

Michael Davis, a professor of law at Hong Kong University, or HKU, said: “The legitimacy of the Hong Kong government is at stake and they certainly undermined their position by [tear] gassing students on the streets.

“That kind of aggressive behaviour, I think, stimulated almost half the protesters to come out,” he told local radio, describing it as a critical moment for the Hong Kong government. “They really need to be trying to do something to represent Hong Kong concerns and not just Beijing concerns.”

While Wong was held for 40 hours – the maximum allowed under Hong Kong law without charges being laid – the crowds on the streets mushroomed to over 80,000, according to HKFS estimates, with police unsuccessfully attempting to disperse them with pepper spray and teargas.

“I don’t think they [Beijing] will listen to our demands, but I am angry that the Hong Kong police treat us in this way, that is why I am here,” said a HKU law student who gave her name only as Grace. She said she had not taken part in the initial student boycotts though she had joined pro-democracy rallies through the streets of Hong Kong in early July.

While police refused to answer many questions at a press conference, they said teargas was used 87 times at nine different locations on Saturday and Sunday.

While many protesters had come prepared with goggles and face masks, most had only their umbrellas to protect them, leading to the protests being dubbed the ‘umbrella revolution’.

More than 70 people were arrested during clashes with police outside the government headquarters over that weekend, with CUHK offering legal advice to students who were arrested. HKU estimated that least 10 of its students were arrested and said it would provide legal advice and other support to the students.

In a statement, HKU’s Vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson said: “We will be flexible and reasonable in understanding the actions of students and staff who wish to express their strongly-held views.”

He added a plea for all parties to express their views peacefully and constructively. “We will also be flexible in understanding practical difficulties that staff and students may face in reaching the campus during periods of transport disruption,” the statement said.

Refusal to back down

Despite a major escalation in the protests, Chief Executive Leung – who had refused to meet with students to consider their demands – said at a press conference on Sunday 28 September that the Hong Kong government was “resolute in opposing the unlawful occupation of government buildings”. He reiterated that the Hong Kong government would uphold Beijing’s decision on elections.

A Hong Kong government statement on that Sunday said the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, or China’s one-party parliament on Hong Kong’s elections, was “legally binding”.

Consultations on the Hong Kong election system had been scheduled to take place but the administration announced that these would now be held at a “better time” – a move that Occupy Central slammed as a delaying tactic. The administration was “just hoping people’s desire for genuine universal suffrage to fade over time”.

Leung issued a video-statement addressing Hong Kong citizens. He called on people to leave the protests, and dismissed rumours that police had opened fire or that the government was ready to call on China’s People's Liberation Army to maintain order.

Commentary in the online edition of China’s communist party newspaper the People’s Daily blamed the unrest in Hong Kong on “extremists” backed by “foreign anti-China forces”. Pictures and reports of the Hong Kong unrest have been censored in China.

Occupy Central

The pro-democracy group Occupy Central, which had been planning a civil disobedience campaign and sit-in in Hong Kong’s central business district, abandoned its separate campaign and joined the student protests last weekend.

“The Occupy movement has become fully fledged with tens of hundreds of citizens taking to the streets fighting for genuine universal suffrage and supporting the students,” the group said in a statement last Monday.

Co-founder of Occupy Central, Benny Tai, a law professor, conceded the students had taken the lead. “It's important for us to join with the students, and we will stay until the last minute with the movement.”

Occupy Central had been expected to start their sit-in on 1 October – a public holiday commemorating the anniversary of the Communist takeover in China.

Despite the weekend clashes, by Monday 29 September police appeared to have given over the streets to the crowds, and retreated. The Hong Kong government said on the Monday that it had pulled back anti-riot police.

Many students had slept in the streets overnight, others at university and college buildings, with HKU providing facilities for students to rest before returning to block Hong Kong’s main thoroughfares, leading to the closure of some 36 banks in the central business district, other businesses and public offices.

The authorities took the unusual step of suspending school classes on Monday 29 September in many areas affected by demonstrations, citing “serious disruption to traffic”. The Education Bureau announced that schools and colleges on Hong Kong island would also remain closed on the Tuesday.

In the absence of an obvious police presence there was a more carnival-like atmosphere last Monday with youth protesters singing songs and waving their mobile phones, and others joining them after work in the evening, massed on the streets of Hong Kong.