Hong Kong students vow to keep protests alive as classes begin

In a photo from Aug 22, 2019, secondary school students raise their phone torches during a rally at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - While Hong Kong's government is hoping that the start of the new school year this week will limit students' time to take to the streets, demonstrators have vowed to continue with the protests and to spread their message on campuses.

Student groups are planning a range of civil actions including class boycotts and rallies in the first two weeks of September.

The increasingly violent protests, sparked by Chief Executive Carrie Lam's proposal to introduce a law allowing extradition between China, Taiwan and Macau, have continued for more than three months.

"We cannot pretend everything is normal and just get back into our daily routine," said undergraduate Isaac Cheng, 19, from Shue Yan University. "The government created this chaos and we can't go back."

Violence escalated on Saturday (Aug 31) as protesters threw Molotov cocktails and bricks, and set aflame a massive road block in the city centre, while police used tear gas and water cannons. Police arrested several prominent opposition figures last week, and warned that others could share their fate if they took part in illegal demonstrations.

A colonial statute passed in the 1960s gives the authorities the power to imprison those who participate in unlawful assemblies for as long as five years, and more than 900 have been arrested on a variety of charges since June.

The demonstrations have drawn as many as two million people across a wide spectrum of Hong Kong's population of more than seven million, but have been driven mainly by the young. One survey by local academics suggested about 60 per cent of the protesters are under 30 years old.

The civil unrest poses the biggest threat to China's control of the city since its handover by Britain in 1997.

Schools and universities will now also be drawn into the conflict, and may be faced with boycotts by students and strikes by teachers sympathetic to the protesters' cause.

Several local student unions are organising daily class boycotts starting on Monday and have set a Sept 13 deadline for the government to respond to their demands.

"If Carrie Lam turns a blind eye to us, not only will the strikes continue, we will escalate our action," said Ms Eve Lui, 20, a student union member at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Student groups are also hoping that they might be able to recruit more people as school resumes, taking their message to more moderate classmates. "Unions have more power on campus," Ms Lui said.

While a few universities have banned professors from voicing opinions on the protests, some sympathetic teachers still plan on showing their support.

One professor at a major university, who asked not to be named, said he plans to hold classes as normal but would not penalise students who are absent because of the protests and would record lectures for them.

Part-time lecturer Benson Wong, 50, at the University of Hong Kong, said he would not record attendance rates at his classes and would delay assessments to help the student protesters.

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"Punishing students for protesting is covering up the political problem without solving it," he said. "If the political crisis cannot be resolved, why should we pretend to go back to normal?"

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