HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s striking students on Tuesday gave the city’s leader 48 hours to honor his promise to listen to the people, threatening to surround and paralyze key government buildings if he failed to respond to their demands for greater democracy.
The students are facing a showdown with Beijing over its decision to rule out fully democratic elections for Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017, with about 13,000 joining a rally at a university campus on Monday to mark the start of a week-long boycott of classes.
The ultimatum came after scuffles broke out when the students took their pro-democracy protest to government headquarters, where they pushed through barriers and rushed to meet Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying as he stepped out to meet the crowd in the Central business district.
Leung did not speak to the students but told reporters that any political reform in the former British colony would need to take into account Beijing’s wishes.
“If he doesn’t come to the community in 48 hours to have direct dialogue with the students and the people, and answer people’s questions, then we will definitely escalate the movement,” said Hong Kong Federation of Students leader Alex Chow, 24.
Chow later gave a speech urging regular Hong Kong people to join their protest after work on Wednesday evening, with an aim to “burst the streets” around key public buildings including the city’s government headquarters, the local legislature and a Chinese People’s Liberation Army barracks.
“Tomorrow and the day after, we need every student and every Hong Kong citizen to come to the door of the government headquarters and take a stand,” shouted Chow on a stage in a grassy harborfront park close to the government headquarters where thousands of supporters had massed during the day.
The students urged Leung to join them on a protest stage, reserving a chair for him to step up and address them.
The Federation of Students said about 4,000 people had turned out to protest at the so-called Tamar park flanking government headquarters and near the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district, Central.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a formula known as “one country, two systems”.
But Beijing last month rejected demands for people to freely choose the city’s next leader in 2017, insisting that candidates had to be pre-screened, prompting threats from pro-democracy activists to shut down Central.
“We will pay full attention to the views of all sectors of the community,” Leung said. “...All proposals to implement universal suffrage to elect the chief executive in 2017 have to be within the framework of the Basic Law and also the relevant decisions of the National People’s Congress.”
The Basic Law refers to the mini-constitution for post-1997 Hong Kong which enshrines the one country, two systems formula. The National People’s Congress is China’s parliament.
This week’s student boycott of classes is the latest civil disobedience campaign in Hong Kong which has been seen a series of rallies over the issue of electoral reform.
Monday’s protest was peaceful but the mood was defiant at the university, where a black cloth was draped over a replica statue of the Goddess of Democracy, which Chinese students rallied around during a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
The students’ ability to mobilize thousands to fight for democracy has made their support an increasingly important driver of the city’s burgeoning civil disobedience movement.
For Beijing, the prospect of protracted student protests highlights one of their worst fears — a student movement that spreads across the mainland, challenging the Communist Party’s grip on power.
Many university professors on Tuesday were delivering lectures on democracy, universal suffrage and civil disobedience in a Central park as students sat on the grass.
“When the teachers voluntarily give us lessons here, we can absorb the knowledge better,” said second-year Chinese University of Hong Kong student Steve Cheung, who was wearing the protest trademark white shirt and yellow ribbon and seated near a banner reading “Disobey, Boycott.”
Organisers were holding various seminars throughout the evening, including lectures and showing displays of major political events in Hong Kong.
A handful of secondary students also made an appearance ahead of Friday, when they are officially expected to join the protest. “I am not scared,” said one 16-year-old who skipped school. “I am prepared to accept any consequences for my absence.”
Additional reporting by Yimou Lee and James Pomfret, Writing by Clare Baldwin; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Dominic Evans