Universities’ silencing of the student voice gathers pace

The silencing of the student voice in Hong Kong continues apace after the city’s oldest university, the University of Hong Kong, derecognised its student union.

“The Hong Kong University Students’ Union (HKUSU) has become increasingly politicised in recent years, utilising the university campus as a platform for its political propaganda,” the University of Hong Kong (HKU) said in a statement released on 30 April.

The student union “repeatedly made inflammatory and potentially unlawful public statements and unfounded allegations against the university”, it said.

“It is not acceptable that the HKUSU, an independent student organisation, disregards the university’s advice and the overall interests of the HKU community while taking advantage of the services and facilities offered by the university. The HKUSU’s actions also bring legal risks to the university,” the university said, without referring to Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law.

It said the university would stop collecting membership fees on behalf of the HKUSU and would “enforce its management rights” over the facilities currently used by the union.

“The university is not a safe haven outside the law,” HKU said, adding that it had the responsibility to “safeguard the collective interest of all staff and students”.

“The university may also take further actions, if necessary,” it said, citing the need to protect “national security”.

In a separate email to students, the HKU administration said it would “enforce our management rights over the offices and other facilities currently used by HKUSU” but added that this would not affect the “continued commitment of the university to facilitate and support extracurricular activities on campus and foster a positive learning environment for all students”.

The severing of ties with the union comes after an article in the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, denounced HKUSU for smearing the government’s attempts to win public support for the National Security Law.

The People’s Daily accused the union of becoming a platform for propaganda and for “radical acts”.

“Given the People’s Daily tirade against the student union, it is unlikely that the student voice at any university in Hong Kong will be allowed to continue openly and freely. Other universities will be the next target of the general erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms,” an HKU student member of the union said on condition of anonymity.

Second university to target student union

HKU, Asia’s highest ranked university, is the second university in Hong Kong to effectively ban students’ political involvement, after similar action by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), leading to the disbandment of the CUHK student union leadership.

CUHK severed ties with its student union leadership known as Syzygia on 26 February, banning the union from using university facilities, accusing it of failing to clarify “potentially unlawful statements and false allegations”.

HKU goes further in targeting the entire union, not just the union leadership, students noted.

According to Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK, Hong Kong Polytechnic University is now the only one out of the city’s 11 publicly funded universities to have an operating student union cabinet this year. Other universities have found few students willing to come forward as candidates for student union posts for fear of being targeted under the National Security Law.

Even before the law came into force in July 2020, union leaders were a target. In 2019 then acting HKUSU president Davin Kenneth Wong left his post and fled abroad, saying he decided to leave after being attacked in August that year by masked thugs with canes.

Vocal union

The HKU statement on 30 April pointed out that the union had been “vocal in recent years”, adding that “the university strongly condemns HKUSU’s radical acts and remarks”.

However, experts noted that the union, which was established in 1912, has a long history of speaking out on political issues.

“HKUSU has been vocal on political issues since at least the 1970s on everything from [China’s 1960s] Cultural Revolution and Diaoyutai Islands to the Tiananmen Massacre, Article 23 and the Umbrella Movement [seven years ago],” said Antony Dapiran, Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of a book, City on Fire: The fight for Hong Kong, on the 2019 protests, writing on Twitter.

Article 23 refers to attempts in 2003 by the Hong Kong government to implement a national security law, shelved after major protests in the city. HKUSU was also active over the dispute regarding the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, which are currently under Japan’s jurisdiction but claimed by China. Hong Kong activists, including HKUSU members, sailed to the islands in 1996 and 2006 in support of China’s claim.

“Campus student unions have been a key feature of Hong Kong’s civil society for decades. They and other elements of this lively civil society are being attacked and dismantled with the aim that Hong Kong will soon have the same emasculated civil society as on the mainland,” Dapiran said on Twitter in reaction to the People’s Daily article.

The HKU Alumni Concern Group, in a statement on 1 May, condemned the “political suppression” of HKUSU and said the taking over of the management of the union facilities on campus was an “unreasonable decision”.

“In our view this is obviously a political task for the university to suppress student organisations in the name of administrative means. The purpose of these actions by the school is to weaken the representativeness and influence of the student union, squeeze the financial resources of the student union, make it difficult for the student union to promote [its] service to students, university administration and community participation, and ultimately force the student union into silence [regarding] the above-mentioned affairs.”

Representing student interests

HKUSU on 1 May issued a statement in response to the university’s decision, noting the importance of upholding students’ interests in university affairs and acting as a bridge between the student body and university management. All HKU undergraduates are automatically members of the union.

HKUSU said: “The union, despite being an independent organisation, has maintained intimate cooperation with the university on equal footing. Even though there were instances where the union did not see eye to eye with the university management, we have always worked together, striving for the welfare of students and the good governance of the university, upholding the principle of teacher-student co-governance.”

It said the university’s action “would have a far-reaching impact on the operation of the union and its sub-organisations. This act has severely undermined the interests of students.”

“In these troubled times, the union sincerely calls for the support and attention to this matter from our fellow schoolmates, in a bid to secure the very last piece of students’ autonomy in Hong Kong,” it said, launching a petition to support the continuation of the union on campus.