Student fears heightened after police enter campus

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) has raised the alarm about police officers entering the campus “for a few minutes” after midnight on Wednesday, 17 July.

It occurred just days after the university’s president, Zhang Xiang, said he would not let police enter the university campus to arrest students without lawful arrest warrants and pledged that the university would support students affected by the protests by “any possible means”.

The development comes as students report “severe anxiety” among students on campus who are fearful of government retribution for their part in recent demonstrations against the Hong Kong government’s bill to allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.

According to a HKU statement issued on Wednesday, “the university security immediately questioned why they [the police officers] were there in violation of existing protocol”, adding that the university would follow up with a formal complaint.

Footage released online by the HKU student union magazine, Undergrad, appeared to show three uniformed officers patrolling outside the university’s student union building at night, although this is not believed to be part of the usual patrol route.

A later police statement said only that they were “in touch” with the HKU authorities about the incident.

Anxiety on campus

Nervousness has grown on campus after HKU’s Simon KY Lee Hall, a student residence, confirmed in mid-June that two of its students were arrested and bailed after the 13 June clashes with police in central Hong Kong, when police used pepper spray and bean bags.

More recently, during a protest at a shopping mall last Sunday which turned violent, a protester who just graduated from HKU was charged with assaulting a police officer after he allegedly bit off part of an officer’s finger. More than 40 people were arrested and 28 people were admitted to hospital after Sunday's clashes. The police force said 11 of its officers were injured.

There was a large media presence at the university in mid-June amid a swirl of rumours of police searches on campus, though any such searches require a warrant, with student anxiety reaching feverish pitch for several days after 13 June and again after the 1 July occupation by young protesters of Hong Kong’s legislative chamber, during which the police held back.

“Some of us decided to leave the campus, we were so scared. Who will protect us if the police come?” said one student who gave her name only as Lam. “Will the university administration protect us?”

She said students had appealed to legislators as a way of deterring police from “invading” the campus.

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui said he rushed to the HKU campus after distress calls from students on 13 June, saying he felt responsible as a lawmaker to respond to students’ requests.

"We got a student request for assistance," he said on 13 June. "Within those hours of waiting we discussed [the situation] with the warden and the students and they are terrified." The lawmaker stayed on campus for two to three hours, but the police did not come.

“We cannot confirm whether the police had changed their minds or whether the information was not accurate. We are just not sure," Hui said.

Deteriorating relations

Relations between students and the police have deteriorated over student accusations of excessive force used by police against protesters. Police have attempted to pull down stickers and posters that have named specific police officers for allegedly using violence against protesters posted on so-called ‘Lennon walls’ or ‘democracy walls’ where people post messages, mostly in support of the protests.

Such walls have sprung up all around Hong Kong in recent weeks. HKU’s Simon KY Lee Hall also has a ‘Lennon wall’ of posters, some criticising a police chief inspector by name. But HKU Students’ Union Acting President Davin Wong said it was uncertain whether the overnight police presence was related to the wall.

HKU students had criticised what they said was a lukewarm 3 July statement by HKU President and Vice-Chancellor Zhang. They protested outside his residence on 12 July, irate that he had not come out more strongly on the side of students and angry that he had until then not met with students to allay their fears.

Students wanted the dialogue after more than 2,100 members of the HKU community signed a joint petition denouncing Zhang’s statement, which they said ignored the police’s role in the violence and called for him to retract it, among other demands.

Wong of the HKU students’ union said last week: “We expected more empathy and more support from our vice-chancellor and our university at such a chaotic time when students could become the target of the regime, when we are frightened and scared.”

Zhang met with the students and held a discussion with them outside his residence on 12 July in which students said he clarified that he felt social movement is generally good and understandable, and he never meant to condemn the students.

During the discussion Zhang said he would not allow police to enter the campus and arrest students unless they have “lawful warrants”, which was met with applause from students.