When Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying met with leaders of the governing councils of Hong Kong’s eight public universities in mid-August, just weeks before Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections on 4 September, students were alarmed it was an attempt by China to put pressure on universities to curb overt displays of “pro-independence” sentiment on campuses.
University leaders have been asked by Hong Kong government officials to contain activities that espouse Hong Kong’s independence from China, according to an academic source. University leaders were also asked to speak out publicly against students’ independence rhetoric, as well as in meetings with students.
Vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong Peter Mathieson said in a prepared statement on Friday 26 August: “The [university] senior management’s position on the debate about Hong Kong independence is that it is not a realistic option. More importantly, it would not be in the best interests of the university.”
He added Hong Kong's regulations included the protection of freedom of speech. The university “must be a place where different opinions can be debated and respected”, he said. “However freedoms come with responsibilities. There is no place in the university for hatred, offensive language and behaviour, or violence," he said.
“Members of the university should respect the law and should understand and accept the consequences of their actions,” Mathieson said.
Hong Kong’s Education Secretary Eddie Ng had already admitted to “exchanging views” with China’s Ministry of Education officials during a meeting in Beijing on 17-18 August over independence sentiments expressed by pupils as young as 13 in secondary schools.
Ng declined to say what the chief executive discussed with university leaders in mid-August. But academics told University World News there is deep concern in Beijing that unrest may break out again on university campuses that could last weeks or months and spill over into the streets – as the 2014-15 student led demonstrations known as the Umbrella Movement did.
Academics acknowledge that the likelihood of campus protests has risen in recent weeks. However academics have said it is difficult to distinguish between students advocating independence within the campus environment, and those merely discussing the issue in fora such as Facebook.
Student anger was aroused last month when Hong Kong’s Electoral Affairs Commission suddenly introduced a change to election rules requiring candidates to sign an additional declaration accepting Hong Kong’s status as a “uniform part of China”.
The electoral commission in early August then barred University of Hong Kong philosophy student Edward Leung, and five others, from standing in the Legislative Council, or Legco, elections even though Edward Leung signed the new declaration, and previously had been allowed to stand in a district council election in February without signing any such document.
Nathan Law, a former student leader of the Umbrella Movement, also running in the Legco election, said his leaflets had been banned by the electoral commission which objected to the phrase calling for a “binding referendum” on Hong Kong’s self-determination. Law said he changed the wording after the electoral commission said the previous phrase was against Hong Kong’s Basic Law or mini-constitution, and his candidacy has been accepted.
A number of so-called ‘localism’ groups such as Hong Kong Indigenous are contesting Legco seats. Localism groups, mainly run by former student leaders and other young supporters of the student-led 2014-15 Umbrella Movement, want to counter the rising influence of mainland China on Hong Kong’s autonomy.
These groups express different views, ranging from those who simply want to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms, particularly freedom of speech, which they see as being under threat from China, and student groups who talk of the possibility of Hong Kong independence from China – a topic unheard of a year ago.
Hong Kong people enjoy more freedoms than mainlanders under the “one country, two systems” terms of the handover agreement signed between Britain and China. Under this agreement Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms are to last for 50 years after Britain handed its former colony to China in 1997, expiring in 2047.
But the electoral commission’s decision to bar Edward Leung has caused a backlash, as candidates from more established political groups who did not sign the new declaration are allowed to take part in the election next week.
Leung is challenging his barring in the courts. But Ray Wong, convener of Hong Kong Indigenous, warned the disqualification could lead to greater support for Hong Kong independence.
Joseph Wong, a former secretary of education in the Hong Kong government, said the current Hong Kong government had been “deeply worried” Edward Leung might win a seat in the upcoming Legco election, so the electoral commission “decided that it must bar him from running at all costs”.
“However, his [Leung’s] unconstitutional disqualification from the election is likely to further exacerbate public anger over the government’s suppression of free speech and boost the election prospects of other independence-leaning or pro-independence candidates of a lower profile,” Wong said in a commentary this week in the Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal.
Leung’s disqualification prompted a protest rally on 5 August organised by students and others and dubbed Hong Kong’s ‘first pro-independence rally’, attracting thousands holding up pro-independence placards. It is this kind of public protest the Chinese authorities wish to stamp out, academic sources said.
In a rare poll on the independence topic conducted last month by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, some 17.4% of Hong Kong people said they support independence after 2047, with support strongest among the young – 40% of those aged between 15 and 24 favoured independence.
At the same time, less than 4% of the 1,010 surveyed thought independence was even possible.
However, support is much higher among university students. The University of Hong Kong student magazine Undergrad found in a survey of the university’s students conducted last month that almost two thirds of the 385 respondents support independence, even if it is opposed by Beijing, up from 54% last year and 37% two years ago.
New generation of localists
Hong Kong officials have been particularly alarmed at the impact on secondary school pupils of university student discussions of independence. A new school-based group called Studentlocalism was founded in April and now has branches in almost two dozen high schools, ensuring a new generation of Hong Kong localists will be waiting in the wings even if localists do badly in next week’s elections.
Hong Kong’s Education Bureau sparked outrage from teachers’ unions and the public when it warned teachers could be dismissed for encouraging students to engage in “separatist” talk.
Education Secretary Ng said this month schools should keep an eye on teachers who propagate the idea of Hong Kong independence. The Education Bureau warned if any teacher is found engaging in improper and “unprofessional” behaviour, they could be stripped of their teaching qualification.
But others see such statements from the Hong Kong government as an overreaction, prompted by Beijing officials who do not understand the situation in Hong Kong.
While Hong Kong people do not think independence from China is feasible, they support the freedom of students and others to talk about it.
“What Beijing and the [Hong Kong] government are actually dealing with here is not a real separatist movement, but rather a separatist sentiment. Therefore, it is important that they don’t blow things out of proportion, and start addressing the grievances that have given rise to such sentiment,” former education secretary Wong said.
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