Campus flag-raising ceremonies may become ‘new flashpoint’

Flag-raising ceremonies on Hong Kong university campuses risk becoming a new flashpoint as the presence of Hong Kong police and security officials attending such ceremonies and reports of students being forced to attend them have caused consternation among students just beginning the new academic year.

The raising of the Hong Kong and Chinese flags on university campuses used to be rare events: most universities had previously only held such ceremonies on special occasions such as 1 July, when Hong Kong was handed back to China after British colonial rule.

But last year Hong Kong’s Education Bureau announced that universities would have to hold formal flag-raising ceremonies “at least once a week” under the new rules which came into effect in January this year.

National security education

The rules bring universities in line with national security education already in place in primary and secondary schools in the city and where flag-raising ceremonies are now commonplace.

Lingnan University, a public liberal arts institution, had already announced in January it had formed Hong Kong’s first university student flag-raising team comprising 34 students “to take up the solemn on-campus national flag-raising duty”.

The team would learn the sprit and etiquette of raising the flag, the university said in a statement in January.

However, the flag-raising ceremony to mark the beginning of the academic year held on 5 September at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), one of the city’s top universities, has raised eyebrows for the size of the event – over 200 were invited – and the people who attended.

They included Hong Kong education officials but also Hong Kong Police Commissioner Raymond Siu and Deputy Police Commissioner Joe Chow, as well as Hong Kong’s Security Secretary Chris Tang.

Mainland Chinese officials were also present, including representatives of Beijing’s liaison office in the city; Deng Jianwei, bureau chief of China’s Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong; and Chinese foreign ministry officials in Hong Kong, according to a CUHK press release.

‘No separation between university and state security’

Their presence “makes it clear there is no separation between the university and state security. Security officials and the police chief should not be on campus even for ceremonial purposes,” according to one CUHK academic who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that “it is a red light for university autonomy”.

Carsten Holz, professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said he had not received any invitations from his own university to attend such ceremonies.

“If attendance were mandatory, most students and faculty will simply feel resentful about being used by the regime for non-academic purposes. There is obviously absolutely no education taking place [with such ceremonies],” Holz told University World News.

“At best, such flag-raising exercises represent a futile attempt at indoctrination,” he said. “At worst, mandatory participation will come across as an act of terror against intelligent citizens. As long as attendance is truly voluntary, the vast majority of faculty and students will not be bothered.”

Holz added: “Excessive presence of ‘security’ personnel on campuses will only hasten the decline of Hong Kong universities. Few in number will be the academics who are willing to work in a police state.”

Many students just shrugged off the ceremonies and said they would ignore it. But some students were concerned and said they did not want to be forced to attend.

‘A signal to students’

Students who spoke to University World News said “it is a signal from security officials and mainland officials that ‘we are watching you’”.

“The university has forced the [CUHK] student union to disband by no longer recognising it, and regarded it as being politicised, but I and other students here feel these ceremonies are overtly political when they involve mainland government officials and national security officials. It is sending students a signal,” a masters student said.

CUHK, along with Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), were scenes of major battles with police in 2019 amid widespread protests in the city. Many students were arrested and there has been a steady stream of students coming to trial over the events.

More recently, CUHK student Cho Tak-hei (22) was on 2 September sentenced to six weeks in prison for taking part in an illegal assembly in January 2021 to protest against new entry restrictions at CUHK, along with three other CUHK students. CUHK implemented entry restrictions after the November 2019 clashes. The other three students, including former CUHK student union president Owen Au, will appear in court later this month.

With such trials ongoing, it “should not be surprising that students are sensitive about police chiefs on campus; it could become a flashpoint for discontent in the future,” predicted a graduate student.

PolyU held a flag-raising ceremony in January to mark the beginning of the year, attended by over 500 students and teachers, as well as officials representing the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, and also held another major event on 24 August to mark the beginning of the academic year.

“The events on our campus during 2019 and 2020 have scarred the student psyche. We do not like the idea of security officials as VIP guests at our campus,” said a PolyU student.

Weekly ceremony

CUHK is now holding weekly flag-raising ceremonies as part of national education along with several other universities in Hong Kong.

Although the university has insisted that all those who attend the ceremony do so voluntarily, an internal email seen by University World News requested that graduate school and faculty deans nominate members of their college or faculty, including students, staff and alumni, to attend the ceremony.

Flag-raising ceremonies will be held every Monday morning during term time to “help students, staff and alumni develop a sense of belonging to the country, an affection for the Chinese people and enhance their sense of national identity”, according to the email.

Most students approached by University World News said a weekly ceremony was “too much” and would become “meaningless”. One student said: “It is not in Hong Kong culture to worship the flag.”

The student added that most students had already left school before flag-raising ceremonies became commonplace in primary and secondary schools as part of ‘patriotic education’ in the past year.

A PhD student at CUHK told Hong Kong Free Press, an online news site, he was required by his faculty to attend the event, along with other students, some from the mainland who were sent as student representatives by their faculties and colleges.