Thousands of Hong Kong college and university students boycotted classes Monday to protest Beijing’s decision to restrict voting reforms, the start of a weeklong strike that marks the latest phase in the battle for democracy in the southern Chinese city.
The strike came as dozens of the city’s tycoons and business leaders paid a rare group visit to Beijing to meet with 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 semiautonomous city.
Student organizers 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 leader, promised for 2017.
Discontent over democratic reform is especially acute among Hong Kong’s young people, who worry about their prospects amid widening inequality they blame on billionaire tycoons whose companies control vast parts of the economy and who have Beijing’s ear.
The National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, insists 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 as early as Oct. 1 as part of a civil disobedience campaign to press their demands.
China took control of the former British colony in 1997, with the agreement that its citizens would enjoy “universal suffrage.” But China has insisted on screening candidates for patriotism to China.
“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 schools rallying at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s suburban campus. “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.”