China tells Hong Kong universities to curb ‘separatists’

China’s official media has hit out at the unfurling of banners backing Hong Kong independence from China at a number of Hong Kong’s universities, putting pressure on the Hong Kong government and on university management to curb such activities.

“The [Hong Kong] government has every reason to step up efforts to prevent separatists from spreading their tentacles in the cities' universities, colleges and schools because their actions violate Hong Kong’s Basic Law,” said an editorial published on 10 September in the official China Daily newspaper.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law mini-constitution states that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China, but it also enshrines the right to freedom of speech.

Students put up banners earlier this month at the Chinese University of Hong Kong which advocated Hong Kong independence and when these were torn down, banners emerged at a number of other Hong Kong universities, in some cases prompting altercations with pro-Beijing groups on campus.

China Daily said the Hong Kong government and educators had “much work to do” to contain ‘separatist’ forces on campuses.

“No matter what excuses they use for their separatist propaganda on [Hong Kong] university campuses, such as academic independence and free speech, they cannot hide the obvious similarity between their choice of words and those of ‘Taiwan independence’ advocates,” the newspaper said referring to its red line on Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade Chinese province.

China’s official Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, ran a commentary on 11 September under the headline ‘A Rule Must be Set to Make Hong Kong Independence Criminal’.

It referred to Hong Kong laws that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression could be restricted “for the protection of national security or public order”. However, students pointed out that there had been no violence on campuses over the banners.

Pro-Beijing groups

As the ramifications spread beyond campuses, some pro-Beijing groups in Hong Kong have emerged to protest in public, calling on the Hong Kong government to investigate how universities were dealing with students calling for independence.

All but one of Hong Kong’s 39 pro-Beijing lawmakers called on Hong Kong’s education secretary to take action against such activities on campuses and urged university authorities to implement policies to prevent similar incidents occurring, including to issue a ban on any material advocating Hong Kong independence from China.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam did not comment when banners first appeared at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, or CUHK, on 4 September, but later said it was “an abuse of freedom of speech”, and has said university administrations should take “timely and appropriate” action to handle the incidents.

Universities’ response

Universities have tried to calm both sides, in particular fearing that any crackdown on campus freedoms could be counterproductive, merely provoking a student backlash which could spill out onto the streets in a repeat of the student-led pro-democracy Occupy Central protests that rocked Hong Kong for weeks during 2014.

A CUHK official Chan Chi-Sum told local media last week that while the posters went too far, “students should be free to discuss a variety of topics including Hong Kong independence".

The university management said it had reached agreement with the CUHK student union to consult them before acting on any banners or posters, but an academic described the talks with students as highly charged and emotional.

Leonard Cheng, president of Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, where students also put up banners in support of the freedom of expression of students at CUHK, said that although vice-chancellors of Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities had discussed issuing a joint statement earlier in the week, consensus could not be reached then.

However, on Friday 15 September, 10 universities issued a joint statement: “We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities. All universities undersigned agree that we do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law.”

The universities were CUHK, the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong Shue Yan University, Lingnan University, the Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Open University of Hong Kong.

Cheng said at his university the posters at the so-called ‘democracy wall’ on campus had not been removed and were part of general discussion. “The university is a venue for exploring knowledge. Why can’t things be discussed?” he told local journalists on Wednesday, but added: “We will absolutely disallow advocacy of Hong Kong independence.”

At Hong Kong Polytechnic University, or PolyU, banners had been removed to protect students “from potentially breaking the law”, the university said.

PolyU’s management said in a statement last week: “To respect and observe the Basic Law, we do not support Hong Kong independence. Based on the same principle, the management of PolyU will remove all related slogans and publicity materials on campus.”

This article was amended to include a joint statement by 10 Hong Kong universities issued on 15 September.