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Rebels with a cause: striking ‘white-shirt’ students speak about fight for democracy

Thousands of university students joined by secondary school pupils at start of class boycott, as global campaign of support begins

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2014, 3:12am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2014, 10:50am
Jeffie Lam and Samuel Chan

The students, mostly wearing white T-shirts, demand genuine universal suffrage at Chinese University yesterday. Photo: Sam Tsang
Waving banners bearing the names of their student faculties, they came in their thousands to protest for democracy. They arrived at Chinese University in small groups and massed into a crowd some 13,000-strong, according to organisers. It soon became clear that a uniform of white T-shirts had been adopted for the cause.

Whereas previous student movements have been dominated by the social sciences and arts, this time medicine, engineering and law faculties were all represented in the rally at the Sha Tin campus to mark the start of a week-long class boycott.

They shared one cause: overturning the strict limits on candidate nominations for the 2017 chief executive election set by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and ushering in genuine democracy. But their motivations varied.

Watch: Thousands of Hong Kong university students join week-long class boycott for democracy

Among them was Kevin Lo, an environmental management and technology student at the University of Science and Technology. It was his first protest. “The National People’s Congress is trying to fool us. We shouldn’t let it win but should fight for what we truly deserve,” he said.

Law student Vincent Chong Yip-fung was determined to “strike” for the full week, despite the effect it could have on his studies. “There is lots of reading we must finish … it will be quite hard to catch up,” he said. “But we must stand up against injustice, or else we might not be able to speak up any more.”

Many of the students understood their actions were unlikely to change Beijing’s mind. But they were determined to fight on and, at least, raise awareness.

And they were not alone. Members of the public and secondary school pupils joined the students.

Thousands of university students from across Hong Kong formed a sea of white as they arrived in Chinese University (CUHK) to join the week-long class boycott for democracy. Photo: Felix Wong

Among them was 79-year-old Chiu Yuk-tan. He travelled from Wong Tai Sin to show his support. “I’ve wanted to see universal suffrage implemented in Hong Kong for decades … but look at the [NPC ruling], how can it be called democratic?” he said.

Ng Wing-choi, 17, skipped secondary school to join the rally. “Without democracy, no matter how hard you study, there will never be a level playing field,” he said. “I hope my classmates will understand that political reform, in fact, has a much more far-reaching impact on them than finding a good job.”

For students from the mainland, however, the protest represented a dilemma. One, from Beijing, said she had “no idea which side is right”.

Another was impressed by the protesters’ passion. “This is very powerful. It’s great for Hong Kong students to have their say. We do not have it on the mainland. Even if we have thoughts, we dare not say them out loud,” said the woman, who was encouraged by her cultural studies lecturer to skip half the class.

The crowd on day one of the boycott stretches into the distance. Photo: Sam Tsang

Most of those who did not join in supported the cause but did not want their studies disrupted.

“Some of my friends are taking part … and I support their fight for what they think is right,” said Matthew Chan, a 19-year-old medical student who said he did not follow politics closely. “But I am not sure which side to take.”

He said about 10 per cent of his 200-strong class were striking.

A student walks past a wall covered with notes during the start of a week-long boycott of classes. Photo: EPA

Academics also attended the rally to back the students, including Professor Chen Yun-chung, of Lingnan University’s cultural studies department.

Chen said that more than 100 academics had got together and planned to deliver lectures to the community in the near future.

“Right now, we want to offer support to the students who vow not to boycott their studies, but in the long run, we hope the lectures could strengthen the civil society,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hongkongers in Australia and the United States have started a global campaign to support the boycott. Pictures on the United for Democracy: Global Solidarity with Hong Kong Facebook page showed students giving away yellow ribbons, a protest symbol, at campuses.

University students from across Hong Kong attend the start of a week-long boycott of classes. Photo: EPA

Additional reporting by Phila Siu

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as The ‘white shirts’ mass for democracy

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