Leading academics in Hong Kong have come out in strong support of a student boycott of classes planned for next week as part of an ongoing pro-democracy campaign in the former British colony.
The move comes as Hong Kong universities held their opening assemblies on Tuesday, with large numbers of students wearing yellow ribbons in support of the democracy movement, and others holding banners calling on students to boycott class next week.
Hong Kong Baptist University student union president Mio Chan said the yellow ribbons were a spontaneous expression of students' hopes and fears.
"All our students wear yellow ribbons when they attend union meetings," he said. "They represent the search for light in times of darkness."
"They represent our resolve in our demands for genuine universal suffrage."
The student movement comes amid growing concern over Beijing's increasing use of its weighty political influence in Hong Kong, and fear that the territory's academic freedom could be compromised.
For many, the Aug. 31 ruling by China's parliament that Beijing will vet candidates for the 2017 poll, which makes the selection of pro-democracy candidates highly unlikely, has undermined public confidence in the "one country, two systems" promise under which Hong Kong was handed back to China.
High school teacher Fong King-lok said younger students are also expected to take part in the boycott, in spite of official disapproval from the government, and Beijing-backed civil groups.
"I doubt that any teachers will be punishing students who boycott class," Fong said. "Not unless that school wants to get itself in the newspapers."
"They'd be standing in direct opposition to the majority of the general public."
The student protest comes after thousands of pro-democracy activists marched silently through Hong Kong on Sunday, carrying black banners and wearing black clothing.
Some 4,000 protesters turned out, organizers said, although police estimates put the number at just 1,860.
Meanwhile, more than 500 professors and staff members at 20 of the city's colleges and universities signed a statement supporting the students.
In a post on the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union website titled "Don't Let The Striking Students Stand Alone," the statement said academics are "pained and outraged" at China's decision to control the selection of candidates in 2017 elections, instead of offering genuine universal suffrage.
"When we look back at history, both in China and overseas, we see that student movements have been an important force in pushing for social progress," the statement said.
"Our hope in Hong Kong's future lies in the passion and spirit shown by our young people and their willingness to take up the mantle in the fight for democracy and social justice."
It called on teachers to be lenient in dealing with student absences during a planned boycott of classes starting on Sept. 22, and to wear yellow ribbons to show solidarity and support.
More than 520 academic staff from 20 higher education institutions had signed the statement by Sept. 13, organizers said.
However, colleges say they will continue with business as usual, even if the students choose to go on strike.
A statement from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology said the college "values freedom of speech, academic freedom and also rule of law."
Pro-Beijing commentators in mainstream and social media have suggested that Hong Kong's pan-democratic politicians and the three founders of Occupy Central are seeking to use the student strike for their own political ends.
But Hong Kong City University student and student strike committee member Ting Ka-ki said the student movement is separate from Occupy Central, and from any of the territory's pan-democratic parties.
"This came from the students themselves, and we used our own judgement to decide whether or not the boycott was necessary," Ting told RFA.
"It's unlikely it could be controlled, because any student taking part in the strike has to gain their own understanding of what is happening," he said.
"Regular students aren't suddenly going to start randomly ditching class."
Some lecturers have told reporters they plan to video their classes and ensure the striking students watch the recording later.
Under the terms of a 1984 treaty signed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the British government, Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" following its 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
But many say Beijing, which has warned Hong Kong it can never enjoy full autonomy, is putting heavy-handed pressure on the territory's once-free-wheeling media, and wielding increasing influence in every area of citizens' lives.
Pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong say they are now fighting to preserve the city's traditional values, and could stage their next major demonstration on China's Oct. 1 National Day holiday.
The organizers of Occupy Central have vowed an ongoing campaign of protest and civil disobedience, to protect Hong Kong's judicial independence, freedom of association and expression.
"We haven't made a final decision on whether to apply [for permission to march], and we may not need to, if this is a protest by citizens," Occupy Central secretary Melody Chan told RFA.
"We will have to wait until [founder] Benny Tai makes an announcement, because if we say any more at this stage, it could affect the arrangements for the protest," she said.
Reported by Ho Shan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.