Universities warned after pro-independence party ban

Hong Kong’s universities are nervously looking at student reaction in the wake of the shock banning of the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) – which espouses Hong Kong’s independence from China – last week, following a new warning from the city’s education authorities.

In an unusual act, Hong Kong’s Education Bureau sent a communication to all higher education institutions and schools on the ban. In a separate letter it informed schools that students who “associate” with the banned party could be committing a crime.

Institutions had a responsibility to prevent illegal organisations from infiltrating campuses, said the letter sent on 24 September – the same day the Hong Kong government banned the HKNP on grounds of “national security, public order and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee said the party had taken action in the past two years to build support for its cause to break away from China and “spread hatred and discrimination” against mainland Chinese people in Hong Kong.

According to Hong Kong’s colonial era laws used to ban the HKNP, anyone convicted of associating with the party, including participating in gatherings or providing financial assistance could be jailed for up to three years.

The definition of “associating” in this context is ambiguous, Hong Kong lawyers have said, and may even include supporting the party in social media posts.

Despite the Education Bureau’s warning, banners and posters supporting Hong Kong independence appeared on at least two Hong Kong university campuses on Wednesday.

A number of posters in support of HKNP and of Hong Kong independence were hung at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), including banners reading in English and Chinese “I support Hong Kong National Party”, which were later removed. Smaller postings appeared at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU).

Student union refuses to remove postings

PolyU’s administration gave the student union a 24-hour ultimatum to remove such postings, which the union has so far refused to comply with. Students said posters supporting HKNP were not an illegal act and that the university was behaving unreasonably.

Speaking to a crowd of students on campus on Thursday, the PolyU student union’s president, Lam Wing-hang, said the requests to remove the posters from its democracy wall – an outdoor site used by students to post banners – was the university administration’s latest move to strangle free speech, and that the posters would stay up for two weeks.

Some campus organisations condemned the ban outright. HKU Students’ Union Law Association said in a statement last week that it was “gravely infuriated” by the high-profile suppression by the government of political parties and said it deplored “in the severest terms the deprivation by the government of people’s freedoms of speech and association”.

It noted HKNP “advocates independence merely through public speech and publication”, and that there was no evidence of the party inciting violence.

The association said it was “gravely concerned that the government may employ the same measure to suppress other political parties”.

However, some academics fear student criticism of the ban could lead to a stronger reaction from Beijing, which has already put universities on notice about pro-independence campus activities.

The unfurling of pro-independence banners in September 2017 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and other campuses provoked China into issuing clear warnings, notably an editorial published on 10 September in the official China Daily newspaper, which said: “The [Hong Kong] government has every reason to step up efforts to prevent separatists from spreading their tentacles in the city's universities, colleges and schools because their actions violate Hong Kong’s Basic Law.”