THOUSANDS of Hong Kong college and university students boycotted classes yesterday, joining a protest against Beijing’s decision to restrict voting reforms.
The move was the start of a week-long strike that marks the latest phase in the battle for democracy in the city.
The strike comes as dozens of the city’s tycoons and business leaders paid a rare group visit to Beijing to meet China’s communist leaders, who want to bolster support from Hong Kong’s pro-establishment billionaire elites for the central government’s policies on the semi-autonomous city.
Student organisers are dismayed over Beijing’s decision in August to rule out open nominations for candidates under proposed guidelines for the first-ever elections for Hong Kong’s top post, which had been promised for 2017.
The National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, insists that election candidates be vetted by a committee. Many of the tycoons visiting Beijing are part of a similar body that selects Hong Kong’s leaders.
Hong Kong’s democracy battle has led to increasing tension and division, with activists threatening to stage a “mass occupation” of the Asian financial hub’s central business district – possibly next week – as part of a civil disobedience campaign to press their demands.
China took control of the former British colony in 1997, agreeing to let it keep civil liberties unseen on the mainland and promising that the leader can eventually be chosen through universal suffrage. But Beijing’s insistence on screening candidates for patriotism to China has stoked fears among democracy groups that Hong Kong will never get genuine democracy.
“The student strike will mark the turning point of the democratic movement,” Alex Chow, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, told about 13,000 students from 24 institutions who took part in a rally at the Chinese University of Hong Kong yesterday. “We will not have illusions in the government anymore, but we’ll have faith in ourselves. We are willing to pay the price for democracy.”
Students plan to gather daily for the rest of the week in a downtown park next to government headquarters. A smaller group of high school pupils plans to join the strike on Friday.
Mr Chow said: “Pre-selected candidates by a controlled nominating committee can only represent vested interests, but not the general public.”
He urged Hong Kong’s government to respond to demands for reform, adding: “If we hear nothing from them, the students, the people will definitely upgrade the movement to another level.”
About 380 academics and school staff have signed a petition supporting the students.
Dixon Sing, a political science professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the organisers are “trying to inspire many fellow classmates to be aware of and be devoted to the democratic movement”.
In Beijing, more than 60 Hong Kong tycoons, including Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest person, met president Xi Jinping. It is only the second time such a big delegation has visited Beijing since the 1997 handover.
The tycoons urged democracy activists to avoid a confrontation, and said that Beijing won’t change its mind.