Is Student Strikes Still an Effective Way in Defying the Unfair System in Hong Kong?
by Crystal Tai & Celia Lai
Ever since pro-democracy protesters retreated from the streets after the Umbrella Movement, education has become a political battleground as government interferes with academic freedom, say students at Hong Kong University.
Fifteen students formed a class boycott committee on 18 January after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s controversial appointment of pro-Beijing official Arthur Li Kwok-cheung as chairman of the university’s council.
His appointment came right after the university council’s rejection to nominate liberal law scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun as the pro-vice chancellor, which sparked a weeklong class boycott in January.
Professor Benson Wong Wai-kwok at Baptist University says that class boycott has become a common way for students to impose pressure on the authority.
“Students leave the classroom to show the willingness, determination and commitment to challenge the government,” he said.
Class boycotts can be traced back to 2012, when tens of thousands protested against plans to introduce Beijing-centric national education in schools.
Although students were not completely satisfied with the temporary withdrawal of the proposal, the move was regarded as a concession made by the government.
In 2014, young activists called students to join boycott campaign in their fight for genuine universal suffrage and resignation of pro-Beijing leader Leung Chun-ying.
Li Chung Chak, secretariat of Scholarism told TYR that the series of class boycotts culminated in the 79-day Umbrella Movement.
“The call for class boycott successfully aroused social awareness and it made local headlines. It was a milestone for the active youth participation in the Occupy Movement,” Mr. Li said.
More than a year after the Occupy protests, Beijing has not given any concessions to accommodate the voice of students.
Tensions escalated after Mr. Li was appointed to preside the university council, stirring fears about eroding academic freedom.
“We want to show students’ strong desire to reform the university ordinance in the class boycott so that internal stakeholders can show their views comprehensively,” said Billy Fung Jing-en, HKU Student Union President.
Around 300 protesters rallied at the start of the campaign over wider concerns that academic freedom was under threat.
“We cannot stop defying against the unfair system just because it was not effective to storm the council meeting in July last year,” said a student who joined the strike.
But unlike the previous student movements, the class boycott in Hong Kong University did not garner as much attention from students.
“I’m quite disappointed that many people are still in the class. Most people don’t know about the strike,” says Chan, a student at the university.
Of the ten deans invited for a meeting with the class boycott committee, only Chris Webster, dean of the faculty of architecture met the students for five minutes.
Students and staff at University of Hong Kong responded coolly to the boycott as they saw past attempts as failure, said Professor Wong.
“The result of the Umbrella Movement was not satisfactory to many HKU students and they quit from HKFS afterwards. They no longer hold the same determination to defend academic freedom on the campus,” he said.
When asked whether class boycott was too radical, Professor Wong said people should first reflect on the government’s performance.
“Hypocrites always say students disrupt social order. They never question the abuse of power or the pro-establishment forces,” he said.
(Edited by Herbert Cheung)