University presidents urge calm as conflict intensifies

In an unusual joint statement, presidents of 10 of Hong Kong’s main universities expressed concern about the “intensifying conflicts and tension in the community” as the city was convulsed by protests against a proposed bill to allow extraditions to mainland China.

The 12 June statement by universities, including the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, appealed for calm, as nervousness about a possible violent police response to Wednesday’s protest had been building throughout the day. Around 72 people had been injured and hospitalised, according to hospital authority figures.

“We urge everyone to work cooperatively and rationally towards resolving the current impasse,” the statement said.

Many students had joined the protests against the bill, which would for the first time allow extradition to China and which they say would undermine Hong Kong’s rule of law guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration handing Hong Kong to China in 1997.

The day after the protests, the streets were reopened and Hong Kong was calm apart from a few skirmishes between small groups of protesters and police outside government buildings. An announcement on Thursday by Andrew Leung, president of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, that the hearing on extradition had been postponed and would not be held this week appeared to diffuse tensions. However, many students were talking about another mass march at the weekend.

On the decision to set a new date for the bill hearing, Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong said: "The [Hong Kong] government seems intent to ramp up rather than back down in its efforts to undermine the city's autonomy in the face of huge public protests.”

Then on Saturday Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, under mounting pressure announced that the government has decided to "suspend the legislative amendment exercise, restart our communication with all sectors of society, do more explanation work and listen to different views of society”, but she did not indicate a timescale.

Tens of thousands protest

As tens of thousands joined Wednesday’s protests, heavily dominated by students and young people aged 18-25, the bill’s reading was postponed. Legislators were unable to navigate the blocked streets to get to the legislature, which was surrounded by student groups, many of them having camped there overnight to prevent government officials and legislators from entering.

Several university student unions had called on students to boycott classes on Wednesday and take part in the protests. A group called Studentlocalism said civil disobedience was now the only option left to fight the “evil law”.

Previously, by the end of May, some 37 higher education institutions and 270 secondary schools had launched major petitions against the Hong Kong government’s extradition legislation, amounting to tens of thousands of signatures.

They included Hong Kong students and alumni at universities abroad, including the universities of Oxford and Cambridge which garnered more than 100 signatures, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews universities.

Class boycott

Students at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and the Education University of Hong Kong had jointly announced the class boycott for Wednesday, calling students to rally outside government buildings. The class boycott would be extended “if necessary”, the joint statement issued Tuesday said.

They were joined by secondary school student organisations and by some staff unions, such as the Chinese University of Hong Kong Employees General Union, in support of the anti-extradition bill protests. Other businesses and institutions announced “flexible working hours” to allow employees to join protests.

The Hong Kong government’s Education Bureau said that anyone who threatened to strike was “extremely irresponsible”.

The university presidents’ statement comes as police used tear gas, pepper spray and bean bags to disperse crowds which initially gathered outside government buildings to prevent legislators from debating the draft bill’s second hearing to amend Hong Kong’s extradition laws.

Hearing postponed

The Legislative Council Secretariat announced the hearing was postponed initially without saying when the debate would take place. The Hong Kong government had wanted the bill passed by 20 June.

The scenes in the streets outside were reminiscent of the 2014 student-led Umbrella Movement, which called for universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong’s chief executive – those demands were not met. But many young people in the streets said they had been too young to take part in the 2014 protests.

The protests follow a peaceful march of more than one million people – almost a fifth of Hong Kong’s population – on 9 June protesting against the bill.

But with street tensions rising and altercations with police during Wednesday’s protest, academics at Hong Kong’s universities said they were fearful that the police were intent on cracking down.

Some 280 international scholars working closely with Hong Kong and the wider East Asian region expressed “deepest concern” over the Hong Kong government’s proposals to amend the extradition laws, which they say would erode freedoms and liberties in Hong Kong, jeopardising the rule of law and human rights in the city.

In a statement, they called on the Hong Kong government to “conduct proper consultation with local and international academics to ensure academic freedom will not be undermined due to the Proposed Amendments”.

“On 9 June 2019, more than a million people from all walks of life in Hong Kong took to the streets to oppose the Proposed Amendments. It is the biggest rally in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. Despite the huge protest, the Hong Kong SAR [Special Administrative Region] government refuses to withdraw the Proposed Amendments and is determined to push the bill through,” they said.

“As many have pointed out, the Proposed Amendments will mean that people living in Hong Kong can be removed from Hong Kong to stand trial or serve criminal sentences in Mainland China for the first time after the handover. Under the Proposed Amendments, once the extradition request is signed off, Hong Kong courts will not have the authority to refuse extradition on the grounds of unsatisfactory human rights records or judicial processes.”

The European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States have already voiced their concerns about the amendments.

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