Thousands of Hong Kong university students abandoned classes on Monday to rally against Chinese government limits on voting rights, a bellwether demonstration of the city’s appetite for turning smoldering discontent into street-level opposition.

“University students must shoulder the responsibility of these times,” Nathan Law Kwun-chung, the acting president of the student union of Lingnan University, told the crowd crammed into the main quad at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Some held banners of their universities, and many others umbrellas to ward off the sun in this tropical former British colony.

“Boycotting classes is just the first wave of resistance,” Mr. Law said. “Today is not the last step for us all. It’s the first step, and countless resistance campaigns will bear fruit.”

The striking students, who have said they will boycott classes for the week, are at the vanguard of a planned succession of protests against rules proposed by China that would effectively give Beijing the right to screen candidates for the post of Hong Kong’s top official.

High school students plan to join the boycott for a day on Friday. While the strike’s first day indicated a modest start, the biggest showdown will come if the main pro-democracy group, Occupy Central With Love and Peace, succeeds in vows to flood Central, the city’s main business district, with demonstrators.

The confrontation with Beijing has moved the territory to the front lines of the battle for democratic rights in China since a government clampdown silenced much dissent on the mainland. Since Hong Kong was returned by Britain to Chinese rule in 1997, it has enjoyed considerable legal autonomy under the “one country, two systems” formula, in which Hong Kong residents retained rights not available elsewhere in China.

Last month, the Chinese legislature proposed election rule changes for Hong Kong. Starting in 2017, they would allow residents to vote directly for the leader of the city’s government, the chief executive, but a nominating committee dominated by pro-Beijing loyalists would be used to restrict how many and which candidates could enter the contest.

The demonstrations may have only the slightest chance of forcing Beijing to change its mind and allow an open ballot, but student activists said they were ready to fight for many years.

“We have to raise our bargaining power,” Alex Chow Yong Kang, the secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said in an interview. “We have to tell them that Hong Kong people are willing to sacrifice much more.”

Frustration with Chinese policy in Hong Kong is especially deep among the young, and contention over voting rights has given many otherwise apolitical students a jolt of civic engagement.

The student strike is the first large-scale gauge, since a modest protest the day the Chinese legislature announced the plan, of how much support pro-democracy groups can muster.

Hong Kong, with a population of about 7.2 million, has more than 78,000 undergraduates enrolled in its seven main universities and a teacher-training college, and there are about 10 smaller colleges. Organizers said about 13,000 students had attended the rally, but they did not immediately have an estimate of the number of students who boycotted classes on Monday.

The turnout reflected the challenges the movement faces in sustaining itself.

“I think the entire pro-democracy movement understands that Beijing will not budge,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. “Any campaign which cannot secure concrete objectives within a reasonable period of time is going to be a very, very difficult campaign.”ts Rally for Reform

For some of the protesters at least, idealism and anger trumped practical concerns.

“I’m not sure if this protest will really affect the decision by China, but I’m sure if I don’t come I will regret it in the future,” said Cathy Lee, 21, a criminology student at City University. “I have to join this protest in order to fight for democracy in Hong Kong in the future.”

A telephone poll conducted this month by researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and released over the weekend vividly demonstrated the generational divide. While 54 percent of Hong Kong’s Cantonese-speaking residents said the city’s Legislative Council should veto electoral changes if they excluded candidates whose political positions differed from the Chinese government’s, that percentage went up to 76 among people ages 15 to 24.

The 27 pro-democracy members of the 70-member Legislative Council have the power to veto any election changes, if they remain united. Chinese officials, however, have said the election plan is all or nothing, and a veto would also foreclose the possibility of electing the chief executive by popular vote.

President Xi Jinping appears unlikely to give in to democracy demands.

On Monday, he met a delegation of some of Hong Kong’s wealthiest tycoons, many of whom have argued that street protests like those threatened by Occupy Central would imperil the city’s reputation for business-friendly stability. In published comments afterward, he told the business leaders that the Chinese government’s basic policies on Hong Kong “have not changed and will not change,” Xinhua, the state-run news agency, reported.

Students on the main campus of the University of Hong Kong noted a drop in attendance of local students on Monday. Benny Tai, an associate professor of law at the university, who is a founder of Occupy Central, said his morning class was half-empty.

“Last week we had an almost full class there, so I assume a lot of them decided to join the boycott,” he said.

Most students from the Chinese mainland avoided the strike, though some watched from the sidelines.

Jean Wang, a Communist Party member from Zhejiang Province on China’s east coast, attended the protest to make a video for her journalism class. It was interesting to see the Hong Kong students exercising their right to protest, she said.

“But in the end,” she added, “like with the Scotland referendum, they won’t get the result they want.”

By CHRIS BUCKLEY & ALAN WONG September 22, 2014 in The New York Times