The boycott begins: thousands of students stage classroom walkout over Beijing’s electoral reform plan

Thousands of university students from across Hong Kong formed a sea of white as they arrived in Chinese University (CUHK) to join the week-long class boycott for democracy which began at 2pm.

Students gathered at the university mall in Sha Tin, wearing white with yellow ribbons pinned to their shirts – the symbol of the city’s democracy movement. Organisers put the turnout at 13,000.

The one-week school strike beginning today is seen as the curtain raiser for Occupy Central, when thousands are expected to blockade roads in central Hong Kong in protest at Beijing ruling out an open election of the next chief executive in 2017.

Thousands of students had gathered by 2pm on Monday. Photo: Felix Wong

Addressing the gathered students, Lester Shum of the Federation of Students said the strikes will begin a new wave of civil disobedience needed to stop the “colonisation” of Hong Kong by Beijing.

“In the colonial days, the British ruled Hong Kong as if they were a group of refugees and obedient subjects,” Shum said. “On August 31, [Beijing’s] decision would allow the central government and [tycoons] to continue to manipulate the election. Isn’t that applying the colonial [approach] to Hong Kong?”

Last month, Beijing ruled that while Hong Kong can pick its leader by “one person, one vote” in 2017, only two or three candidates with majority support from a 1,200-strong nominating committee could run. Potential candidates that Beijing does not want on the ballot paper would be screened out by the committee on the grounds of national security.

“Resist colonial [rule], say no to screening! Self-determination for Hongkongers!” Shum led the crowd in chanting.

Alex Chow of the Federation of Students (holding paper) reads out the Declaration of the Student Strikes. Photo: Sam Tsang

The federation’s secretary general Alex Chow Yong-Kang reiterated the students’ demands of the authorities: allow the public to nominate candidates in 2017; abolish functional constituencies in the Legislative Council; and apologise for and retract Beijing’s ruling on political reform.

If the authorities refuse to respond, the students want Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and the justice and constitutional ministers to step down, Chow added.

“Class boycotts may last for only a week, but there could be more strikes in the future. If 10,000 students promote [their causes] in the society… [who can say] it’s impossible to change this society?” he said.

“We must consider whether we are going to tear down a poisonous [reform] package, or tear down the future of Hong Kong,” Chow asked, warning that endorsing Beijing’s decision would allow social injustice, serious poverty and urban planning problems to persist.

Gathered students wore white with yellow ribbons – the symbol of the democracy movement – pinned to their shirts. Photo: Sam Tsang

Dr Chan Kin-man, an associate professor at CUHK’s sociology department and one of the co-founders of the Occupy movement, offered support to his students.

He said he had not called on the students to join the strike, but was pleased to learn that almost two-thirds of sociology students were on the mall.

“It’s very encouraging to see the young people’s dedication,” said Chan. “That’s why I’m not very frustrated after the National People’s Congress Standing Committee [the highest national legislative body] spelt out its ruling [on the 2017 election]. In fact, I am encouraged.”

As an undergraduate, Chan once led a class boycott at CUHK. He will offer classes to his students on Saturday to make up for the ones they are missing this week.

A striking student listens to speeches on the first day of the class boycott. Photo: Sam Tsang

Baptist University scholar Dr Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, a Civic Party lawmaker, said: “Today is an ironic day indeed: while the [mall] here is packed with students, this morning, a group of tycoons were queuing up, waiting to bow down in Beijing and receive orders.

“But the NPC shouldn’t be deciding Hong Kong’s future, it should be everyone here, who understands the city’s core value, to decide!” Chan told the crowd.

Labour Party lawmaker Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a lecturer in social work, said: ” I speak here with a heavy heart that our students have to boycott classes to alert the city, the central government and the world that Hong Kong won’t find a way out of [the situation] if it continues like this.”

“We are not here to seize power and interest, we want a fair system for the allocation of social resources and [to decide] how the city’s education and housing policies should be implemented,” Cheung added.

Organisers said as many as 13,000 had gathered on the strike’s first day. Photo: Sam Tsang

Tammy Yiu, a freshman studying social work at Shue Yan University in North Point, said she was skipping two lectures to join the campaign.

“I don’t want to remain silent,” she said. “When society is being divided, I do not want to stand on the wrong side.”

She admitted that joining the protest had not been an easy action, especially when the fees for the private Shue Yan institute are so high.

She chose not to tell her parents that she was taking part.

“How can I tell my family I am going to skip the classes for a week and sit in the park?” said Yiu.

Many students brought umbrellas to protect themselves from the harsh afternoon sun. Photo: Sam Tsang

Student leaders and academics are expected to deliver speeches to the gathered assembly later today.

Vincent Chong Yip-fung, a law student, said he was determined to stick with the strike for the full week.

“We must stand up to fight against the injustice,” he said. “Or else we might not be able to speak up anymore.”

At the entrance to the university’s MTR station , a Catholic group offered prayers for democracy in Hong Kong. There were long queues waiting at the university’s shuttle bus stations, with many of them heading to the class boycott rally outside the university’s library.

The students have demanded that Beijing retracts its decision to rule out an open election in 2017. Photo: Sam Tsang

The venue for the school boycott will move from Chinese University to Tamar Park next to government headquarters in Admiralty from tomorrow, where various scholars backing the campaign will deliver lectures on topics ranging from democracy to cultural studies.

Almost 400 university and non-academic staff have thrown their weight behind the student protest, signing a petition offering their “staunchest support and protection”.

More than 80 public lectures are planned, with speakers including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and more than 100 academics from various disciplines.

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 September, 2014, 2:40pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 September, 2014, 5:29pm