HONG KONG — Thousands of university and high school students skipped their first day of classes Monday, as part of a city-wide boycott in support of anti-government protests that have rocked Hong Kong for almost three months.
Students from 11 universities rallied at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Sha Tin, sporting black shirts and face masks. They chanted slogans like “Fight for Freedom” and “Liberate Hong Kong,” and demanded the government answer for months of unresolved political stalemate and the increasingly violent tactics used by the city’s police force.
“The situation in Hong Kong is worsening,” a student from the University of Hong Kong said on stage, his face hidden behind goggles and a mask. “All those who hold Hong Kong values close to them, all those who are proud to be called Hong Kongers are now targeted and suppressed by the government.”
“We must continue to be brave during these abnormal times,” he added.
Earlier in the day, more than a thousand secondary school students held a separate rally in support of the protests, calling on their peers to boycott classes as the new year began. Many other students held in-school protests to show their support for the sprawling movement. The police, meanwhile, came under fire for stationing teams outside multiple high schools throughout the city, checking students’ school bags in train stations.
Students have spearheaded the pro-democracy movement since it kicked off in June against Hong Kong’s proposed extradition bill, that would have given Beijing the power to extradite wanted individuals to mainland China. Many residents saw the bill as Beijing’s attempt to tighten its grip on the semi-autonomous city.
Hopes that the protests would die down once the students headed back to school were dashed as thousands of young people joined rallies across the city, many expressing their resolve to continue to protest until their demands are met.
City leader Carrie Lam says the bill is ‘dead’, but protesters have grown their demands since the movement’s early days. They now want the government to meet their five demands, which includes officially withdrawing the bill and launching an independent investigation to examine the police’s use of force.
“Boycotting classes doesn’t mean we’re boycotting learning,” said another student at the rally, whose face was also masked. He said that skipping classes gives time for students to protest and that fighting against the government was part of their duty as Hong Kongers.
Many students at the rally were dressed like him, donning helmets, goggles and gas masks.
“I’m dressed in full gear because I want people to see what I have to wear in order to feel safe when I go out to protests,” said Alvin, a freshman studying social sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I want them to know what we are faced with every day.”
Organizers estimated that up to 300,000 students attended the university rally, which followed a weekend of renewed violence and unrest. On Saturday evening, riot police stormed onto subway trains, hitting and arresting passengers and protesters with batons, a large barricade was set alight by protesters in a busy shopping district. Hours later, thousands of demonstrators crowded into city’s airport Sunday, causing major traffic jams after public transportation was suspended and many were forced to walk for hours to get back into the city.
“I’m dressed in full gear because I want people to see what I have to wear in order to feel safe when I go out to protests”
The police say that 159 people were arrested over the weekend and 16 were charged with rioting. More than a thousand have been arrested since the large scale protests began in June.
“There is great injustice in our home,” said Christy, a recent graduate from the University of Hong Kong.
She explained that she isn’t brave enough to stand on the front lines and fight back, so supporting the boycott was her way of protesting.
“This movement is not a rebellion, it is a cry for righteousness,” she said.
Cover: A student, his face hidden by a mask and helmet, gives a speech at a rally to kick off a city-wide class boycott at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (Diana Chan for VICE News)