By Clare Baldwin and James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong students are preparing for a showdown with Beijing over democratic reforms by boycotting classes on Monday, as a restive younger generation challenges the Chinese Communist Party's tightening grip on the city.
The former British colony returned to China in 1997 with a high degree of autonomy, but Beijing's rejection of the right to freely choose the city's next leader has prompted threats from activists to shut down the Central financial district as part of their pro-democracy campaign.
As a prelude to the "Occupy Central" shutdown expected next month, students from 24 universities and colleges plan a week-long citywide campaign of civil disobedience, including classroom strikes, mass gatherings and downtown protests.
Leading academics in Hong Kong have voiced support for the boycott, with some offering to record lectures and post them online for students who miss school to watch later.
Managing Hong Kong is proving a challenge for Beijing, which is worried that calls for democracy in Hong Kong and the nearby former Portuguese colony of Macau could spread to cities on the mainland, threatening the Communist Party's grip on power.
China said in the Basic Law mini-constitution for post-1997 Hong Kong that universal suffrage was an eventual aim. Late last month, it said it would permit a vote for Hong Kong's next chief executive, but only for a handful of pre-screened candidates.
"The new generation is totally dissatisfied," said Alex Chow, leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students which said in a statement that Beijing had "murdered" Hong Kong's hopes and three-decade-long struggle to realize full democracy.
It's not clear how many students will take part in the strike, though recent protests have drawn thousands, including an overnight sit-in in Central on July 2 that was cleared by police with over 500 arrests.
Official Chinese media has vilified Hong Kong student leaders and warned them not to stir up trouble. The Hong Kong government department responsible for education has said repeatedly that it does not support the boycott, but also that it will not interfere.
"WE MAY HAVE TO JOIN THEM"
The students plan to hold a mass assembly at a university campus on Monday before "relocating" to other public areas, including a site near government headquarters that some say could snowball into something bigger.
Benny Tai, one of the organizers of the Occupy Central movement, said it may launch its sit-in early if the students gain momentum.
"We have to prepare for that. After the public meeting, if they march to Central, then we may have to join them," Tai said.
The strike reflects a growing trend of civil disobedience among students in greater China, including Macau and self-ruled Taiwan, where a large group occupied the island's legislature for three weeks in March and April to oppose a controversial trade pact with China.
It was one of the largest protests in years in Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province, and the pact was shelved for review.
"Among young people in Hong Kong, there is a growing sentiment of mistrust towards the Chinese government," said Agnes Chow of the student group Scholarism that has urged high school pupils to join the strike at the end of next week.
"It's not because we feel we aren't Chinese and it's not because we dislike China as a country," she said. "We feel we cannot trust the government in power."
Some of the Hong Kong students' more radical tactics have yielded results before and angered Beijing.
In 2012, Hong Kong was forced to shelve plans for a compulsory pro-China "national education" curriculum plan in schools after students led week-long protests drawing thousands, saying the plan was tantamount to brainwashing.
A well-placed source with ties to senior Hong Kong and Chinese officials said China was furious with the Hong Kong government's capitulation at the time in front of what it considered to be no more than a bunch of "rebellious kids".
"The students see themselves as Hong Kongers above all else and I think that's the key thing," said Matthew Torne, a British filmmaker who made a documentary about the Hong Kong student activists.
"When your home is under attack - which is how they see it - then you are willing to stand up and fight."
(Additional reporting by Kinling Lo and Diana Chan; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie)