Inauguration ceremony cancellations bode ill for dialogue

A number of Hong Kong universities have announced that they will not be holding formal inauguration ceremonies at the impending start of the academic year, amid concerns about major disruptions on campuses as part of ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations.

Nervousness about whether campus tensions will rise as students return to classes and the inauguration cancellations do not bode well for universities as a conduit for dialogue with students.

On Tuesday Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam called for a ‘platform for dialogue’ in a bid to de-escalate protests that have attracted hundreds of thousands of people in street marches, strikes, occupations and other civil disobedience activities.

University actions

The University of Hong Kong or HKU said the 28 August ceremony to welcome new students would be cancelled, without providing any official reason. A spokesperson from HKU said: “The current inauguration ceremony format has been in use since it was first introduced in 1999. HKU reviews the content and format of the activities from time to time.

“This year, the university has decided to let faculties arrange activities more in line with the style of the faculty, and which allows more interaction between new students and existing members within the faculty for the new academic year,” the spokesperson said, adding that in the past HKU had “organised orientation ceremonies and activities in various formats”.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong or CUHK also announced that it would cancel its start of the academic year convocation. This was followed by the cancellation of the Hong Kong Baptist University ceremony originally scheduled for 3 September, “after taking all relevant factors into account”.

“Each faculty, school or academy will organise its own induction activities to facilitate new students’ adjustment to university life,” said Baptist University Director of Student Affairs Gordon Tang in a letter to students and faculty on 16 August.

Sources said the main fear was students taking over the ceremony and using the stage to give pro-democracy speeches, or shouting slogans.

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University has also cancelled its inauguration ceremony, while other institutions said they were reviewing the situation.

A number of student union members said ongoing activities in the streets would disrupt normal orientation events to welcome new students. For example, a 15 August statement by the student union at the Education University of Hong Kong or EdUHK said it did not have enough people to organise orientations for new students “while supporting the protests”.

It added: “There were unceasing conflicts last week and the social atmosphere has been heating up. At this time large orientation activities would pose risks to personal safety of students or organisers.”

Rallies will be held on the CUHK campus on 2 September to kick off a two-week class boycott, said student leaders at a joint press conference of student unions of 10 universities on 22 August at which students announced they would give Carrie Lam until 13 September to respond positively to protesters' five demands before considering escalating campus protests.

Davin Wong, acting president of HKU's student union, said the 13 September deadline "is because we think two weeks should be enough for the government to think through how to respond to the demands."

Return to class

The moves have come as students are about to return to classes after the summer break, which has seen an escalation from mass peaceful marches to local skirmishes and running battles in different localities in Hong Kong in which police have fired tear gas and bean bags.

“The semester is about to start, so ‘normal’ life is about to resume for most students and at this point anything normal is absurd and anything absurd is normal,” said Lokman Tsui, assistant professor at CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication and an expert on freedom of expression.

“It is really difficult to know how things will play out and whether classes will be suspended,” Tsui told University World News.

Student unions at 11 higher education institutions in Hong Kong jointly announced a “general strike for all Hong Kongers for an indefinite period”, with anger against police action running high.

“There is now talk of class boycotts and class suspensions and what policy will the university advise or impose, and that’s a question that has not been resolved right now,” Tsui said.

“If you take the Umbrella Movement of five years ago as a guideline then what will likely happen [will be that] they leave some discussion to the teachers. That means every teacher for him or herself has to decide what are they going to do, including for grading” – the latter being what to do about students who are absent during a boycott.

“The question then is how long it will go on and no one knows at this point,” he said.

Sebastian Veg, a professor with the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences or EHESS in Paris and an honorary professor at HKU, commented: “One immediate preoccupation is what will happen to the people who are arrested and charged with rioting and other severe crimes. It is to be hoped that universities will uphold the presumption of innocence for students, faculty and other staff concerned.

“If some of them are found guilty and sentenced, it is to be hoped that universities will exercise discernment before applying additional disciplinary measures,” Veg said.

CUHK Vice-Chancellor Rocky Tuan has said any student facing criminal charges would have some assistance with legal fees. A handful of CUHK students are currently facing riot charges relating to protests in mid-July, which can carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Tuan added that he would consider making a period of suspension (from the university) for students who are jailed to allow them to return to the university on their release.

Head of EdUHK Stephen Cheung said on 31 July that the university would neither stop nor encourage students and teachers from taking part in the protests. “The university will do its best to take care of those who need help,” he said.

Confrontations with university leaders

Universities will open after the summer break at a critical moment. On 20 August Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed “sincere dialogue with various sectors of society” and said she would start by approaching those who had proposed talks in the past.

These include university heads, although several academics said Lam’s proposal for dialogue was “two months too late”.

Previous approaches to student groups at a small number of universities did not bear fruit.

Official sources said talks with young protesters were becoming urgent. “The acceptance and tolerance of escalated actions among protesters have risen,” Francis Lee, director of CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication, said at a press conference this month to present a series of surveys of 12 protests from 9 June until 4 August.

The survey was put together by Lee together with Gary Tang of the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong’s department of social science; Edmund W Cheng, assistant professor in the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University; and Samson Yuen, assistant professor in the political science department at Lingnan University.

The survey results found that almost three quarters of protesters had some kind of higher education qualification, and 60% were under 30.

“Generally speaking, the protesters tend to be young and had received tertiary education,” Lee said. More than 26% were between 20 and 24 years old. One in six was taking part in demonstrations for the first time.

But campus dialogues may be difficult if a series of open fora held individually at several universities between vice-chancellors and students in a bid to clear the air and pave the way for dialogue is anything to go by. These fora did not go particularly well, a number of students and academics who attended them said, with several students at HKU and CUHK saying they left “disillusioned with university leadership”.

“Several seem to have backfired quite obviously, including the one at HKU, in which the vice-chancellor only mentioned protester violence but not police violence,” said Veg.

Elsewhere, in a particularly tense confrontation on 1 August between students and CUHK’s Tuan, students stormed out an hour into the two hour ‘townhall’ style hearing.

They said Tuan was vague in reassuring students and supporting their five demands, which include the complete withdrawal of a government bill to extradite criminals to mainland China – which sparked the current unrest – an independent investigation into police behaviour, a withdrawal of the characterisation of the 12 July protest as a ‘riot’, and the unconditional release of protesters.

Tuan said only that he was “open” to an independent inquiry into recent clashes between police and protesters, which fell short of students’ calls to back their five demands.

Asking for a complete withdrawal of the extradition bill and an independent inquiry “is not controversial in the least”, said Yuen Chan, a senior lecturer in journalism at City, University of London but formerly from CUHK, noting that a number of pro-establishment figures in Hong Kong who might be considered to be pro-Beijing have already called for these.

“It is hardly an outlier opinion,” she said.

“Any vice-chancellor in Hong Kong needs to be somebody who is open, humble and willing to listen. As a vice-chancellor you’re quite removed from [what is happening on] the ground and need to have your ear to the ground to know what students are thinking,” Chan added, underlining that university leadership in Hong Kong was an “unenviable job”.

Universities as a platform for dialogue

CUHK’s Tsui said Tuan’s 1 August forum “did not go so well” and his idea of a platform for dialogue “wasn’t terribly well received”.

Vice-Chancellor Tuan was one of those to formally suggest a “platform for dialogue” that would be “acceptable to a large cross-section of society for the purpose of enabling constructive and effective dialogues between the government and citizens from different age groups, social backgrounds and political persuasions”, according to an open letter on 5 July.

That idea “needs a lot more fleshing out if it has any chance of succeeding, including, for example what powers it will have and how it can enforce what it will advise or recommend. How will this platform be composed? Who will be on it? These are details that are really, really important,” Tsui said.

“You can build a platform but if no one comes and if no one takes it seriously then that platform is also no use.”

“The other question is what do you want to talk about, because the five demands of this social movement and the protest are clear. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to discuss, but she [Carrie Lam] might want to give a response to that first.”

“A dialogue can take place and it’s important to take place but there needs to be sufficient common ground first of all and trust and so far both are lacking,” Tsui said.

University leaders’ stance

Way Kuo, president of the City University of Hong Kong, also met with students and staff on 1 August and said in a statement afterwards: “The university would like the government to respond to social demands in the best interests of Hong Kong and to ensure student and public safety.”

Wei Shyy, president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, issued an open letter asking the government to act on requests for an independent inquiry into the general political situation, one of the five demands.

Only the head of EduHK, Stephen Cheung, said on 31 July that he had written to Lam to ask for a complete withdrawal of the suspended extradition bill. “Most important is for the government to formally withdraw the bill so as to create favourable conditions for sincere dialogue,” he said earlier this month.

He said he had relayed a request from his university’s student union for ‘open dialogue’ with Lam. Cheung proposed an ‘open platform’ for different groups to express views and work towards narrowing gaps and differences “in the best interests of Hong Kong”.

Lingnan University President Leonard Cheng went further, attending a protest rally on 27 July “as an observer”, which nonetheless was seen as gesture in support of students at the protest. He has been the only university head to do so.

“Frankly, it’s been disappointing [what] the leadership of all the universities has shown so far in showing solidarity with the movement. You can say maybe that’s not their role to be political but at this point I don’t think there is very much room for a neutral space,” Tsui said, referring to Beijing forcing several institutions and organisations such as the airline Cathay Pacific to take a stance on the protests.

“I do understand it’s a really difficult position to be in, to be a university president right now, but even if you try to be neutral that’s a political stance,” Tsui concluded.