University president under fire for stance on protesters

A political row has erupted over a university president’s commitment in writing to back Hong Kong students arrested or beaten by police and to protect the university campus against police intrusion.

In an open letter on Friday 18 October, Rocky Tuan, the vice-chancellor and president of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), was the first of the university heads in Hong Kong to say he would condemn the police for any “proven case” of brutality.

He urged Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to initiate an independent investigation outside the existing police complaints system into some 20 cases involving CUHK students who say they were mistreated by police after being arrested.

An independent commission of inquiry into police conduct and use of force during the months of protests is one of the five demands of protesters. Others include the complete withdrawal of the bill to extradite criminals to China – the bill that started the protests in June, which was finally withdrawn on 4 September – plus the release and exoneration of arrested protesters and universal suffrage for legislative council elections.

In an indication of the polarised situation in Hong Kong after months of almost uninterrupted protests, pro-Beijing officials in Hong Kong accused Tuan of taking sides. Chinese official media has described students as ‘rioters’ in recent articles.

And in an unusual move, China’s Communist Party organ, the People’s Daily, in an article on 19 October accused Tuan of writing a “biased” letter that only reflected the views of arrested students, without mentioning students and teachers who had been injured during the protests.

Leaders of several universities in Hong Kong have held open meetings with their students and alumni to hear them out.

A former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, under whose watch Hong Kong’s 2014-15 Umbrella Movement took place, condemned Tuan’s letter and said students from different universities had “forced” their vice-chancellors to attend public meetings and express support for the five demands, one of which is retraction of the classification of protesters as ‘rioters’.

“They forced the university chiefs to express their stance in the hope of turning their illegal acts from black into white and to justify the campaign,” Leung wrote in an open letter to Tuan.

“Why should the cases be handled outside the police complaints mechanism just because the arrestees are students of CUHK?” Leung added, suggesting that vice-chancellors had been manipulated by student unions, which had become “shameless masters” of politics.

Universities’ statement

However, heads of eight university governing councils in Hong Kong issued a joint statement saying assistance provided by universities to arrested students and staff does not represent support for their political views.

The statement from the governing councils of CUHK, the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the Education University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University said: "Any assistance or advice rendered is in keeping with the pastoral care of its stakeholders, and does not represent any support for the political view of any stakeholder.”

Universities cherish a diversity of views and promote robust yet civilised and respectful discussions, they said. "Universities are, however, not battlegrounds for the resolution of political issues and should not be drawn into supporting any particular political position."

‘Taking sides’

Universities, and in particular university leadership, were seen in the earlier stages of the protests as a possible bridge between protesting youth and an intransigent government – an idea that has subsequently been all but abandoned by the Hong Kong government.

Universities have called on students to “respect different views”, particularly over violence that has occurred around ‘Democracy Walls’ or ‘Lennon Walls’ with posters and post-it stickers in support of the protests, which in some cases have led to violent altercations with some students from mainland China.

Now universities such as CUHK that appear to show open sympathy for the students, are being seen by pro-Beijing politicians as taking sides amidst escalating police brutality and arrests as protests become more violent.

Hong Kong students have been calling on university leaders to openly support their demands and protect their human rights as rising police brutality becomes a new focus of protests. Some 2,600 people have been arrested in recent weeks, many of them students.

Emotional students, many of them weeping, in a meeting on the CUHK campus on 10 October attended by some 1,400, had called on Tuan to condemn police and help them in their campaign against police brutality.

They included CUHK student Sonia Ng, who openly stood up to recount details of how she was allegedly sexually assaulted while in police custody.

However, at the time CUHK students condemned what they regarded as Tuan’s lukewarm response, calling it “tone deaf”.

Tuan separately met some 30 students a week later, around 20 of whom had been in police custody, which resulted in an apparent change of tone and an open letter.

Open letter in support of students

In his letter Tuan said the university realised it hadn’t done enough before.

“I was able to see personally and up close the pain and suffering of the students, how they were driven to a state of hopelessness, and why they had turned to the university for help,“ Tuan wrote, adding: “I fully recognised that in the face of such unprecedented challenges to our community, the university might not have done enough for our students.

“In teaching students to accept responsibility for their own action, the university shall also help them assert their rights,“ he said.

What is clear, he said, is that “the university is expected to make best use of its status, standing and influence to ensure a fair treatment of the related issues and the students affected”.

“Irrespective of why our students were arrested, the police should ensure that the rights of the arrested must not be infringed upon during arrest and detention.”

Some students said they had been denied permission to sleep or lie down during detention, he wrote. A student with a head injury was refused access to a hospital for 18 hours. Most had experienced delays in accessing lawyers. One student was denied access to his family for 48 hours while they waited at the same police station.

“These are not isolated incidents but serious allegations from a human rights point of view… Upon hearing from the students themselves what physical and mental pains they had suffered, I felt sad and anguished,” Tuan wrote.

Distrust of police among the injured students meant they had not lodged formal complaints. “Demands for the government to establish an independent commission of inquiry to try to get to the root cause of police-civilian conflicts… have grown louder and louder,” he wrote.

Independent investigation

“In view of the gravity of the matter, I will write to the chief executive to exhort her to initiate an independent investigation of the 20 or so cases involving CUHK students outside existing mechanisms. This will hopefully reaffirm the rule of law and restore public confidence.”

Last weekend Carrie Lam, who has generally brushed off allegations of police misconduct and blamed protesters for escalating violence, urged Tuan to encourage students to file their complaints through established mechanisms. These include the Independent Police Complaints Council, which reports directly to the office of the chief executive.

Nonetheless, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper, Lam hinted on Sunday 20 October that the government was open to looking at other ways to respond to demands for an independent investigation into the policing of recent protests. But she said that would only happen if the public still clearly did not trust the current mechanism for handling police complaints.

At an emergency meeting at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) of more than 3,000 HKU alumni, a motion for the university administration headed by President and Vice-Chancellor Xiang Zhang overwhelmingly passed calling on the university to support students injured in protests. A number of students pointed to Tuan as an example of support for students.

The convenor of the HKU Alumni Concern Group, Ip Kin-yuen, who also represents the education sector in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, said a large number of the university’s students arrested during the protests had also been injured and it was “a basic responsibility of the university to care for the students”.

HKU student leader Davin Wong fled Hong Kong last month saying he feared for his and his family's safety after being attacked by a masked man.

Alumni also called on Carrie Lam to resign as HKU’s chancellor.

Earlier this month Hong Kong Baptist University suspended two campus security guards said to have ‘turned a blind eye’ when riot police entered the campus without permission.