Students defy university warnings with classes' boycott

Around 30,000 students took part in a start of term rally in Hong Kong last Monday to launch a two-week boycott of classes, as part of the non-violent protests that have rocked Hong Kong since June.

The protests are unlikely to be halted despite an announcement on Wednesday by Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam that the extradition bill that sparked the protests would be withdrawn.

A joint declaration released on Thursday by student unions of 11 universities and institutions in Hong Kong said: "It is not only a fatal mis-assessment of public opinion but also an insult to Hong Kongers who have been fighting for freedom and protecting our basic rights, if Carrie Lam naively believes she can put out the fire by simply withdrawing the bill."

The declaration referred to "unforgivable atrocities" by Hong Kong police and attacks by gangsters and demanded an inquiry into police conduct as one of their five demands.

"Hong Kong people have been very clear that there are five demands and we accept not one less. Students' unions of higher institutions will continue our strike," they said, adding, "We have reached the point of no return."

Monday's rally was held at the same time as a secondary school class boycott involving thousands of pupils, some from the city’s most academically selective schools. Also, around 40,000 workers including some hospital staff and social workers joined a general strike.

“We have people from all parts of society behind us,” a Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) student said on Monday. “This makes it different from the Umbrella Movement,” he said, referring to the 2014 protests which began with a boycott rally on the CUHK campus and then street protests that lasted almost three months.

Many of the students at the CUHK rally said they had been too young to take part in the 2014 protests but were determined to fight for Hong Kong’s freedoms. The current movement, which began as a protest against a bill to extradite criminals to China, has now lasted more than 85 days.

An English studies student, who gave his name as Ivan, said Hong Kong students show up for what they believe to be more important than classes – freedom of speech. A banner on CUHK’s Fine Arts building read “Defend our freedom from fear”.

The rally on the CUHK campus included major platform speakers and was organised when the university cancelled the regular inaugural ceremony that is usually held at the start of the academic year, ostensibly for fear of disruption by protesting students.

CUHK administration warnings

The university also asked the CUHK student union to cancel the 2 September rally “to safeguard the safety” of staff and those attending, adding that a campus rally posed a “high risk” after a weekend of violence in Hong Kong.

“The university staff is not enough to cope with the fierce conflicts that may arise from such a large gathering,” it said in a statement.

Jacky So, president of CUHK’s student union, says an estimated 30,000 took part in the 2 September rally, compared to 13,000 in 2014 at the same place on the CUHK campus, a rally that effectively launched the Umbrella Movement.

So said the university had suggested the rally should be cancelled but that students had decided to go ahead as it was an important platform for students and others to express their views.

Student representatives from several universities in Hong Kong read out a joint statement to continue pushing for the protesters’ five demands to be met. These include a formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, an inquiry into police handling of the protests and the release of arrested protesters.

They gave the Hong Kong government two weeks to respond, with an escalation of protests planned if it did not.

“This is a very peaceful means of expression; the government should listen to their demands,” said Ma Ngok, a professor of political science at CUHK.

After refusing to budge all summer and allowing protests to escalate, Carrie Lam on Wednesday announced the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, which was frozen but not withdrawn on 9 July.

Students on the CUHK campus echoed widespread feeling in Hong Kong that it was “too little, too late”, saying Lam had conceded just one of their five demands – the full withdrawal of the extradition bill – and they would continue their action until all five demands were met. “Five demands. Not one less,” has been a slogan of the protests.

One student on the CUHK campus who declined to be named said that if anything it made it even more worthwhile to push on. "She [Lam] has backed down on this [extradition bill] because of our pressure so we must continue till we win all our demands."

Leung Yiu Ting, president of the Education University of Hong Kong's student union, said: "Until the five demands are met, I don't think the protests and the social movement will stop."

The withdrawal of the bill is a huge concession for Lam and Beijing, said CUHK Assistant Professor Lokman Tsui. “A huge concession for them, not for us,” he tweeted.

A police briefing on Monday put the number arrested since the beginning of the protests in June at 1,117, with around 70 charged with rioting, which carries severe penalties including up to 10 years in prison.

Classes should be normal, says HKU

Although universities have asked professors not to openly voice an opinion on the protests, Benson Wong, former assistant professor at the department of government and international studies of Hong Kong Baptist University, described the ongoing political crisis in Hong Kong as a “tsunami”.

“The present defines our future,” he said.

A group from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) said Hong Kong people were gathering to “defend their identity as Hong Kongers”.

HKU had issued a letter signed by Richard Wong, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor, announcing that all teaching and learning activities would take place as scheduled.

“While we respect our students’ rights to freedom of expression, we also ask that students who wish to participate in boycotts be aware of the possible impact on the progress of their learning,” it said.

Academic staff would “take steps as far as practicable to ensure that our students’ learning experiences will be minimally disrupted”, it said, but classes could be rescheduled “in a situation where there are concerns about disruption of public order or other safety issues” and there could be flexibility if disruptions on and off campus resulted in difficulties for students to attend classes – a reference to police action in underground stations of the mass transit railway.

Wong added that the right of others who wish to attend classes must be respected. “All attempts should be made to avoid confrontation,” he said.

One HKU professor who asked not to be named said he would not record class attendances during the boycott period.

Secondary schools

A secondary school boycott rally was also organised by the Demosisto political party in Hong Kong which sprang from Scholarism, an earlier youth protest over patriotic education being imposed in schools, and student groups active during the Umbrella Movement.

Students from a number of schools held protests. A group from City University of Hong Kong described how “secondary school students who initiated class boycott activities in schools were being stopped and searched by police” on Tuesday.

Demosisto Vice-Chairman Isaac Cheng accused police of creating a “climate of fear” for pupils and attempting to cow students into not taking part in the boycott by standing on guard outside some schools and searching their bags. Police said they were responding to residents’ “concerns about safety”.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung had called on students to refrain from joining the boycott, saying that schools should be free from “political interference.”

The education bureau has said it will check with schools on the number of students and teachers who fail to show up during the boycott period but stressed that the government would not collect individual names, leaving it to schools to decide on any punishments.

At one point during the rally on the CUHK campus one mainland Chinese student went on-stage and yelled “you don’t deserve to be university students!” and was dragged off-stage as he waved his passport.

This story was updated on 4 September 2019.