Thousands of Hong Kong university students abandoned classes on Monday to rally against Chinese government limits on voting rights, a bellwether demonstration of the city’s appetite for turning smoldering discontent into street-level opposition.
“University students must shoulder the responsibility of these times,” Nathan Law Kwun-chung, the acting president of the student union of Lingnan University, told the crowd crammed into the main quad at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Some held banners of their schools, many others umbrellas to ward off the sun in this tropical former British colony.
“Boycotting classes is just the first wave of resistance,” he said. “Today is not the last step for us all. It’s the first step, and countless resistance campaigns will bear fruit.”
The student strikers, who have said they will boycott classes for the week, are at the vanguard of a planned succession of protests against rules proposed by China that would effectively give Beijing the right to screen candidates for Hong Kong’s top official.
High school students plan to join the boycott for a day on Friday. While the strike’s first day indicated a modest start, the biggest showdown will come if the main pro-democracy group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, acts on vows to flood Central, the city’s main business district, with demonstrators.
The confrontation with Beijing has moved the territory to the front lines of the battle for democratic rights in China after a government clampdown has silenced much dissent on the mainland. Since Hong Kong was returned by Britain to Chinese rule in 1997, it has enjoyed considerable legal autonomy under the “one country, two systems” formula, in which Hong Kong residents retained rights not available elsewhere in China.