HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hundreds of children joined students demanding greater democracy for Hong Kong on Friday, capping a week-long campaign that has seen a large cut-out depicting the territory's leader as the devil paraded through the city and calls for him to resign.
Secondary school pupils launched a one-day class boycott, supporting the university and college students who began their own class boycott on Monday with a rally that drew about 13,000.
"My parents encourage me to have critical thinking and they are most concerned about my safety," said 12-year-old Eren Chak, a thin, bespectacled boy wearing the trademark white T-shirt and yellow ribbon.
About 200 students camped outside the home of chief executive Leung Chun-ying on Thursday night after he ignored a 48-hour ultimatum to meet them to discuss the former British colony's democratic future as tensions escalate.
"The secondary school class boycott indicates the red light warning is up for Hong Kong politics," said Joshua Wong, a thin 17-year-old with dark-rimmed glasses and bowl-cut hair who heads the group leading the pupils' protest, Scholarism.
The number of school children far exceeded forecasts, Wong said, adding that Scholarism's boycott would end at 1000 GMT.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China under a formula known as "one country, two systems", which espoused universal suffrage as an eventual goal.
But Beijing last month rejected demands for people to freely choose the city's next leader in 2017, prompting threats from pro-democracy activists to shut down the Central financial district. It wants to limit elections to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing.
A handful of parents accompanied their children on Friday, voicing support for the democracy campaign and slamming the Hong Kong government for rejecting demands for free elections.
"I am here to support my daughter because I think the Chinese government has lied to Hong Kong citizens and think we are stupid," said a parent surnamed Lam.
About 20 students tried to break through the security cordon to Leung's front door but were stopped by police who took their identity card numbers.
The students' ability to mobilise thousands to fight for democracy has made their support an increasingly important driver of the city's burgeoning civil disobedience movement.
Wong has already won one major victory against Beijing.
In 2012, he forced the Hong Kong government to shelve plans to roll out a pro-China national education scheme in the city's schools when the then 15-year-old rallied 120,000 protesters.
"I think he understands the political realities of Hong Kong, but he also understands the psychology of the mob or the protest group, in that you have to build the crowd up but once you've got them eating out of your hand, you can get them to do whatever," said Matthew Torne, a British filmmaker who made a documentary about the national education protests.
Wong has grabbed newspaper headlines over the past few days - although not all have been flattering.
On Thursday, the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper ran a full-page story on Wong, accusing him of having close connections with forces in the United States and saying the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was trying to infiltrate Hong Kong schools.
Wong has denied the allegations.
Managing the former British colony is proving a challenge for Beijing, which is worried that calls for democracy could spread to cities on the mainland, threatening the Communist Party's grip on power.
The protests have taken place in a grassy, harbour-front park flanking government headquarters and near the heart of Central. An "Occupy Central" blockade is planned for Oct. 1.
Hong Kong has been dogged by a series of rallies this summer over the issue of electoral reform. A survey by the Chinese University showed more than a fifth of Hong Kong residents are considering leaving the city, spurred by concerns over its political future.
Additional reporting by Stefanie McIntyre and Yimou Lee; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Nick Macfie