HONG KONG – Hundreds of Hong Kong university and school students swapped classes for democracy demonstrations on Monday, the latest act of defiance in an anti-government movement that has plunged the Chinese-ruled city into its biggest political crisis in decades.
The boycott follows a weekend marred by some of the worst violence since unrest escalated more than three months ago, with protesters burning barricades and throwing petrol bombs, and police retaliating with water cannons, tear gas and batons.
Riot police on Monday patrolled the subway, known as the MTR, where some of the most violent clashes have erupted.
Hundreds of students gathered outside the Chinese University of Hong Kong, one of the city’s largest, taking turns to make speeches from a stage with a black backdrop embossed with “Students in Unity Boycott for our City.”
“I come here just to tell others that even after summer holidays end we are not back to our normal life, we should continue to fight for Hong Kong,” said one 19-year old student who asked to be identified as just Chan. “These protests awaken me to care more about the society and care for the voiceless.”
Images posted on social media showed rows of teenagers lined up outside secondary schools holding banners. Many primary schools were closed because of a typhoon warning. Monday was the first day back after summer holidays.
Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong government chief secretary, told reporters that schools were no place for protests.
Cheung also wouldn’t rule out imposing an emergency law to help police contain protests that have led to increased violence since they began in June.
“We are reviewing comprehensively with an open attitude on what could be used,” Cheung said Monday when asked whether the government would use an emergency law, adding that any actions would need to be “reasonable.” He was repeating comments made last week by Chief Executive Carrie Lam about the sweeping colonial-era law, which allows for easier arrests, deportations, censorship and property seizures. Lam has said the government would consider using all laws at its disposal to bring unrest to an end.
“Once calm’s restored, society’s back to normal, then we can go forward,” Cheung said. “Law and order must be restored ASAP, without further ado. No nonsense. We are all yearning for law and order.”
Protesters had called for a general strike, but most people appeared to return to their daily lives with shops open, trains operating and workers making their way to offices across the global financial hub.
Thousands of protesters blocked roads and public transport links to Hong Kong airport on Sunday in a bid to draw world attention to their attempt to force Beijing to give greater autonomy to the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Airport authorities said 25 flights were cancelled on Sunday but transport services were largely back to normal.
After leaving the airport on Sunday, some demonstrators targeted the MTR subway station in the nearby Tung Chung district, ripping out turnstiles and smashing CCTV cameras and lamps with metal poles. Police moved in and made several arrests.
Lam, a lightning rod for protesters’ anger at a city government they say is controlled by Beijing, said on her Facebook page on Monday that 10 subway stations were damaged by “violent offenders.”
Police and protesters had clashed on Saturday night in some of the most intense violence since unrest escalated in mid-June over concerns Beijing is eroding the freedoms granted to the territory under a “one country, two systems” agreement, including the right to protest and an independent judiciary.
John Lee, government secretary for security, told media that nearly 100 petrol bombs were thrown in various locations on Saturday with two found on a 13-year-old boy who was arrested inside an MTR station.
The unrest began over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed people in the city to be sent to China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, the latest example of what many residents see as ever-tighter control by Beijing, despite the promise of autonomy.
The turmoil has evolved over 13 weeks to become a widespread demand for greater democracy. China is eager to quell the unrest before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1.
China denies meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs and accuses Western countries of egging on the protests. It says Hong Kong is an internal affair.
With Hong Kong facing its first recession in a decade, China has also warned of the damage the protests are causing to the economy.
Shares of Hong Kong rail operator MTR Corp. fell as much as 3.9 percent to 43.65 Hong Kong dollars, their lowest since Feb. 15 and on track for their third consecutive session of decline.