By Donny Kwok and Venus Wu
Hong Kong students gathered in the heart of the city for a second day on Wednesday ahead of a planned blockade of government buildings if the city’s leader fails to discuss their demands for free elections.
About 300 university students protested in a park flanking government headquarters near the Central financial district where they sat listening to lectures in the middle of a week-long class boycott.
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 have to be pre-screened, prompting threats from pro-democracy activists to shut down Central.
The city’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, declined to discuss the students’ demands with them on Tuesday, prompting them to set a 48-hour deadline, saying they would surround and paralyse key government buildings if he did not face them.
“Either he has problems with his ability to comprehend and does not understand the students’ demands and the people’s demands, or he just has no heart to listen to our opinions because he is already kneeling in front of grandpa,” student leader Lester Shum said late on Tuesday, in reference to Leung’s close relationship with Beijing.
Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing has become increasingly fraught in recent months as activists push for freedoms they believe are theirs under the “one country, two systems” formula.
Communist Party leaders in Beijing, for their part, are terrified of calls for democracy spreading to cities on the mainland, threatening their grip on power.
Such dissent would never be allowed on the mainland, where student protests calling for democracy were crushed with heavy loss of life on and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
A Muslim economic professor was jailed for life in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang on separatism charges on Tuesday, a sentence that rights advocates said sent a clear signal that Beijing is determined to suppress dissent.
Confidence in “one country, two systems” is at the lowest it has been since the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme began tracking the issue in 1993, it said in a survey released on Tuesday.
More than half, or 56 percent, of the 1,000 people in Hong Kong surveyed by telephone in September said they had “no confidence” in the system.
The student boycott is the latest in a string of civil disobedience actions including an unofficial civil referendum, marches, rallies and a brief occupation of Central that led to more than 500 arrests.
A second occupation of Central is expected on Oct. 1.