Hundreds of students at the prestigious University of Hong Kong (HKU) on Wednesday ended a week-long class boycott amid an ongoing stand-off over the appointment of a pro-Beijing official as chairman of its ruling body last month.
Dozens of students crowded into the university's campus in Pokfulam late on Tuesday outside a regular meeting of the council, calling for reforms to its structure, besieging council members who said they were unable to leave the premises for several hours.
Billy Fung, president of the HKU student union, said the council made no reply to the students' demands for dialogue, however.
"The students’ actions were very reasonable, there were more police on the scene than students, and I have seen an officer pointing a pepper spray canister at students," Fung told reporters after the protest was criticized by HKU management.
The meeting was the first chaired by former education secretary Arthur Li, who was controversially appointed to the position by the city's chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.
While the council has said it will review its structure in time, the students are calling for immediate changes amid growing public fears that behind-the-scenes pressure from Beijing was influential in its decision to reject the candidacy of liberal scholar Johannes Chan for the post of pro-vice-chancellor last year.
'No other options available'
Student activist Daphnie Chan rejected claims by HKU vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson that the students' protest amounted to 'mob rule.'
"Every time the students take action, it's because they have been forced into it, with no other options available," Chan told RFA.
"Far from the students misbehaving, the police actually treated us rather roughly," she said. "All the students wanted was a chance to have a dialogue with Arthur Li."
Fellow student activist Yvonne Leung said the class boycott would end on Wednesday, however.
"The mood among the students is still one of dissatisfaction," Leung told RFA. "Our next step will be wait for the outcome of [our request for a] dialogue with Arthur Li in 10 days' time."
Fung said it is the duty of students to take an active interest in how society operates.
"A university is a place of learning, and we are supposed to use that learning to care about society, to care about our universities," Fung told RFA on Wednesday.
"It's very clear that the aim of this action was to protect HKU, and I don't think it affected the university's reputation," he said.
"The fact that so many students want to put in so much effort to reform the university's charter is something we should be proud of."
Meanwhile, HKU professor Cheung Sing Wai said the students' reaction was understandable.
"I thought the police were a little too rough with them," Cheung said. "After all, the students had their own reasons for doing what they did."
"All they were asking was that Arthur Li come out and talk to them; why is that such a problem?"
"They came up with a plan, but then the students thought they were dragging their feet, so why not talk to them about it? What's so hard about that?"
The HKU council had already agreed to set up a task force to look into the effectiveness of the current structure, but had said it should await the publication of yet another report.
The students were demanding that the council delay no more in starting the process.
Growing fears about Beijing
Any changes to the university's charter will also require the participation of Hong Kong's seven other universities, who are governed by the same document.
Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee said the protests have implications for the way that all of Hong Kong's universities, which are subject to a degree of government control, are run.
"We know how important education is, and how important universities are to the people of Hong Kong," Lee said.
"The rules that govern HKU govern all of the other universities as well," he said.
The protests come amid growing fears that Beijing has no intention of respecting Hong Kong's traditional freedoms of expression, including the city's pluralistic political scene and once freewheeling press and publishing industry.
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, the former British colony was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms and a "high degree of autonomy."
But the recent "disappearance" of five men connected to a bookstore selling political books banned in mainland China, two of whom are in police custody across the internal border, sent shock waves through the city.
Chinese officials have so far declined to explain how the men, one of whom is a Swedish national detained on holiday in Thailand, reached China in the first place.
Reported by Ho Si-yuen for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.