Unions fear impact of suppression of campus activity
Union members said university management has been quick to object by letter to campus events organised by student unions, particularly after Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung called on universities in November last year to tighten up on student activities.
The Hong Kong administration recommended that universities set “clearer requirements” for student unions to hold events on campus.
Universities have also come under pressure from pro-Beijing legislators to take disciplinary action for student protest-related activities on campuses.
At the University of Hong Kong just one student is running as a candidate for the union’s general secretary, according to the current students’ union president, Edy Jeh. Many positions have been left vacant at five out of eight of Hong Kong’s publicly funded university unions, raising the prospect of the unions being unable to function in the future.
Union members, who often organise activities on behalf of the whole student body, are being treated more and more harshly by university administrations, students say, often for activities they say were “normal” in the past but which are now coming under increased scrutiny and controls if they relate to the 2019 or previous student-led protests. The new National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong in July 2020 makes many such activities unlawful.
In January the president and vice-president of the students’ union at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) were suspended for allegedly ignoring management warnings of COVID-19 related health risks for activities organised in memory of HKUST student Alex Chow, who died after falling from a multi-storey car park near a protest in 2019.
The HKUST union had also refused to remove materials deemed in breach of the National Security Law on campus notice boards in May last year when asked by the university management.
They were warned they could be expelled from the university if any further ‘violations’ occurred. Four other union members received letters barring them from using some campus facilities for a term and ordering them to serve 75 hours of university community service.
The HKUST students’ union has said the punishments handed to its members were “disproportionate”.
Suspended Union President Donald Mak Ka-chun told the South China Morning Post newspaper last month: “I believe the university is penalising us to set an example for others and to suppress [student activities] and this could also have an impact on the future practices of our [union] successors.”
Students said this year not enough students were willing to stand for the main HKUST union posts of president, vice-president or secretary.
Last month three students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), including former CUHK student union president Owen Au, were arrested by police after masked individuals pushed down newly erected campus fences and threw an unidentified powder substance at guards on the first day of the new semester on 11 January in protest at stepped-up campus security.
CUHK, along with Hong Kong Polytechnic University, were the scene of major campus battles with police in November 2019 during student protests and were closed for months to repair damage, improve security, and because of COVID-19.
Police also arrested eight CUHK students in December over the use of a banned slogan during a campus protest march.
The university management opposed a photo exhibition on the 2019 protests, citing legal concerns about a poster said to bear a Hong Kong independence slogan.
“The university is not above the law. It can neither defend individuals who are under investigation by the authorities for purported law-breaking, nor intervene in the investigations,” a CUHK open letter released on 3 February said.
It referred to the unrest on campus in November 2019 at the height of the anti-government protests when demonstrators clashed with the police. It also highlighted “recent incidents” which it said were “distressing”.
“Regrettably, Hong Kong society was rocked in 2019 by chaos arising from deep-seated conflicts among members of the community. The university unfortunately found itself at the heart of this tumult as our campus was turned into a place of disputes and extreme actions.
“We fully appreciate that different stakeholders of the university often hold different views and perceptions towards an issue. This reflects the inherent diversity of the university community. While we have made every effort to balance the views of different stakeholders, we have consistently and persistently deplored and condemned all forms of violence and any unlawful act,” the statement said.
Candidates currently standing for leadership posts of the CUHK students’ union have said they would safeguard the “remaining freedom and autonomy” of organising campus activities.
Candidates criticised the National Security Law as part of their election platform for the union leadership posts which make up the union’s cabinet.
“Our whole [union] cabinet is prepared to be arrested. And if university management decides to suppress us with disciplinary measures such as handing out demerits, suspending us, or even expelling us, it would be within our expectations,” Union Vice President Terence Law said on campus radio.
Attempt to ban film
The University of Hong Kong (HKU) management this week urged the HKU Students’ Union (HKUSU) to drop a planned showing of a documentary about jailed pro-independence activist Edward Leung, who was barred from standing in Hong Kong legislature elections last year. Leung is currently serving a jail term on rioting charges related to the 2016 protests.
The university warned the campus showing could breach the law – without specifying which law – and the COVID-19 related social-distancing rule limiting public gatherings.
A university body which oversees campus facilities also said in an informal communication with the HKU union that showing the film “will expose HKUSU, the organiser, to extremely high risk” should it be reported to the police or Hong Kong’s special National Security Law unit.
The union was warned that some scenes in the documentary could have “serious legal concerns and consequences”, including shots of activist Leung, a key figure in the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement protests of 2014-16, shouting “reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our times” during a by-election in 2016. He was later barred from standing for the main legislative council elections that year.
While it was a rallying cry of the 2019 protests, pro-Beijing factions regard it as a call for the independence of Hong Kong from China, which has now become illegal under the National Security Law.
The film, which was made in 2017, was previously screened at universities in Hong Kong between 2017 and 2019.
A statement from HKU said: “As advised by legal experts, the screening may be in violation of the law and the university urges [the union] to seriously reconsider holding the screening on campus in the light of public safety concerns and the potential legal consequences.
“The university solemnly reiterates that it is a civic responsibility to be law-abiding, and that it will not tolerate any violation or attempted violation of the law. The university respects the freedom of expression and freedom should come with responsibilities. People should respect the law and understand the consequences of their words and actions.”
HKUSU has said it would go ahead with the screenings. “It is the union’s mission to educate fellow schoolmates on the history of our motherland. The union expresses its condemnation of the university’s threats and suppression of freedom of speech and academic freedom,” it said on 2 February.
HKUSU’s Edy Jeh said in an interview with the local Hong Kong Free Press in November that the campus pro-democracy Lennon Wall, where students were posting pro-democracy and protest messages, was removed in October, and she was worried the student union building itself which is managed by the union could be taken back by the university at any time.
Outsiders last year entered the campus to remove items and posters from the HKUSU Lennon Wall.
Students were also reluctant in 2018 and 2019 to stand for leadership posts for HKUSU. In 2019 the then acting president of the HKUSU, Davin Wong, abruptly resigned from his post and fled the city citing personal safety fears following an assault by masked men while he was standing at a bus stop.
Current HKUSU members say they are being followed by individuals they could not identify but who were believed to be police or national security agents.