China seeks action against ‘secession talk’ on campus

China has renewed pressure on Hong Kong’s universities, making it clear that universities and education officials have not come down strongly enough at the start of the academic year against campus speeches that refer to Hong Kong independence from China.

Independence is a topic that is debated on campuses but has little traction in wider Hong Kong society. However, advocating ‘separatism’, whether Taiwan or Tibetan independence or activities of some members of minority groups such as the Muslim Uighur community in Xinjiang province, is anathema to China’s ruling Communist Party.

A commentary article published in the official China Daily on 12 September said both university administrators and education officials in Hong Kong seemed to have handled “secession talk” in local universities “with kid gloves”.

“The laissez-faire policy adopted by some local universities has allowed the seed of separatism to infest their campuses. Worse, connivance has emboldened those mavericks,” the article said.

In the inaugural speech at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) on 3 September, student union Chairman Au Cheuk-hei and another student union member, Anthony Suen, referred to the Chinese mainland as a “neighbouring country” and “northern empire” and suggested that Hong Kong independence was “an option”.

CUHK President Rocky Tuan said the university did not support Hong Kong independence but was committed to free speech and academic freedom which must be exercised in a way that is “peaceful, rational, mutually respectful and accepting of others’ opinions”.

At the end of August, Cheung Yam, president of the student union’s executive council at the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK), said during the institution’s inaugural ceremony: "Hong Kong can truly serve the interests of its people only by gaining independence."

An EdUHK spokesperson later said the university “deeply regrets” and “condemns” the union’s move to advocate independence.

Hong Kong officials were quick to respond. In remarks on 5 September Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung said it was “unnecessary and improper to discuss Hong Kong independence”, especially at university inauguration ceremonies which are open to all students, and include new students just starting out in higher education.

Not enough for China

However, this was not enough for Beijing. “Failure to snuff out the seed of separatism will have a detrimental effect on the learning environment in Hong Kong. Therefore, it is important for the government and universities to take prompt action to reinstate a school environment purely for academic purposes,” China Daily said.

The commentary, signed by George Lung Chee-ming, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, and chair of an association promoting youth exchanges between Hong Kong and the mainland, criticised EdUHK for ‘merely’ referring to the speech as "deeply regrettable", while CUHK’s administration had only reiterated its stance of not supporting Hong Kong independence.

“The impact of Hong Kong independence advocacy is far-reaching and we should not procrastinate in rooting out all forms of separatism in the city. In particular, school campuses should be the primary target in the crusade against secession advocacy,” the hard-hitting article said, adding that “university administrators should never overlook the severity of the issue and should implement punitive measures to deter offenders”.

More ominously, and which some academics in Hong Kong suggested was a portend of things to come, Lung said he believed the Hong Kong government “will not remain on the level of voicing their objection, but will take action to deal with independence advocacy on school campuses according to law and ensure that no one would challenge the red line set by President Xi Jinping”.

Hong Kong’s English language daily, the South China Morning Post, said in a 6 September editorial that the Hong Kong government and universities were in a difficult position.

“While some are adamant that such discussions are just peaceful expressions of opinion, the red line has already been crossed in Beijing’s mind,” the Hong Kong newspaper said.
“Politically, inaction will be seen as showing tolerance for independence but, without any effective tools to deal with such remarks, the two parties can only resort to verbal pressure. If they go further to limit what can or cannot be said during inaugurations it will provoke a backlash.”

It referred to the example of Hong Kong Baptist University, where the acting president of the university’s student union, Ken Lui Lok-hei, said some politically sensitive portions of his university opening speech had been censored out of a printed programme.

Even though it did not mention Hong Kong independence, it referred to an ongoing dispute between students and the university over compulsory exams in Mandarin – not commonly spoken in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong.

The university denied the allegation, saying it was because of lack of space in the publication.