Pro-independence banners re-emerge on campuses

Banners advocating Hong Kong’s independence from China have re-emerged at several Hong Kong university campuses despite moves to tear them down at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, or CUHK.

The banners were seen as provocative to China and the Hong Kong government and appeared to signal renewed defiance after three prominent former student leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy protests were jailed last month.

According to reports from students, banners and posters saying ‘Hong Kong Independence’ in English and Chinese appeared at CUHK, the University of Hong Kong or HKU, Hong Kong Polytechnic University or HKPU, the Education University of Hong Kong or EdUHK and the private Hong Kong Shue Yan University. Some were put up by student unions but others hung anonymously, local media reported.

The previous day, at the start of the academic year, similar banners were torn down at CUHK, causing tension between the student union and management of the university. New banners at CUHK also condemned the university’s attack on freedom of speech.

Student union members at two other universities said on Tuesday that their action was in part in support of campus freedoms of their CUHK colleagues. An open letter issued jointly on Wednesday by student unions of seven Hong Kong institutions condemned the institutions for eroding academic freedom.

“People may disagree with views on independence, but [anyone] should enjoy the right to talk about it,” said the letter issued by the student unions of the City University of Hong Kong, HKPU, EdUHK, CUHK, Lingnan University, Hang Seng Management College and the Open University of Hong Kong.

CUHK students said they had been ordered to remove the new banners by the university authorities who maintained they “violate Hong Kong law”.

The university said in a letter from the Office of Student Affairs that leaflets and banners referring to Hong Kong independence from China were in breach of Hong Kong law as well as the university’s “long held position” of “absolute opposition to Hong Kong independence”.

It said: “While the student union may set its own regulations for the management of various facilities, students must also follow the overall policies of the institution.”

But CUHK’s union upped the ante saying they had breached no laws and were considering seeking a judicial review of the matter. Students at other universities said their posters met university regulations.

Independence discussions

Discussion of Hong Kong independence from China, barely mentioned in the past, only surfaced after the student-led protests in 2014 known as Occupy Central failed to wrest any concessions from the Hong Kong government on universal suffrage.

Last August leaders of Hong Kong’s public universities met with then Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. They were asked to contain any pro-independence activities on campus.

The move followed a decision last year by HKU to take down a pro-independence banner on campus on China’s National Day in October because it was ‘unauthorised’, but the university stopped short of taking any action against students, in order to diffuse tensions.

Similar banners had been handed out at a number of higher education institutions by the small Hong Kong National Party which supports independence from China. But the party maintained it was up to students whether they wanted to display them on campus.

Student representatives on CUHK’s Staff-Student Centres Management Committee said in a statement last Monday that the banners had been hung in an area where traditionally “members of the university gather and discuss current issues”. They said these range from China’s democracy movement, tree protection campaigns as well as the 2014 protests. “It has always been such a place and should remain unchanged.”

They added: “We cannot understand the reason why the slogan ‘Hong Kong Independence’ is so sensitive, since the university could never stand apart from society, and it is our responsibility as well-educated citizens to be aware of social issues.

“We are of the opinion that the action the university took is not appropriate, and we would like to express our deep regret at such action." They said the university’s “rude intervention” to take down the banner would destroy “the pre-existing consensus and mutual understanding between the university and the student union”.

Hong Kong laws do not forbid discussion of Hong Kong independence. Under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ formula agreed by Britain and China for the handover of the former British colony in 1997, Hong Kong has freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including freedom of speech.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.