Security chief warns against support for China protests

Hong Kong’s chief of security has warned against protests in the city after small protests occurred at three Hong Kong universities this week in solidarity with protesters on the Chinese mainland.

Major, widespread protests broke out across China last weekend over stringent anti-COVID lockdown measures, in some cases turning into protests against Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Small groups of students held protests at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, with larger protests at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) this week.

Despite being minor in comparison to protests across more than 100 Chinese campuses on 26-28 November, the campus protests in Hong Kong have been regarded as significant by academics and political commentators.

Campus protests are now a rare occurrence in Hong Kong – a reversal of the once-vibrant campus freedoms of a few years ago. There were huge protests in the city in 2019 over erosions sparked by a proposed law to extradite prisoners to the mainland. Protests were effectively stopped by the National Security Law, but some smaller protests were held on campuses, including CUHK in November 2020. Students were arrested and some were charged under the security law.

The willingness of demonstrators to risk going against national security laws sparked a swift reaction from Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security Chris Tang who said on Wednesday that some had used events in Hong Kong expressing solidary with protests in China to “incite” opposition to Beijing.

“Inside the universities and on the street corners, we observed that there are people using this opportunity to incite against the central government [in Beijing],” Tang said.

Tang claimed such activities were not random but “highly organised” and warned that they could lead to bigger protests. “Later they will occupy the streets, use violence, throw petrol bombs and ravage our university campuses again. And after that, there will be large-scale riots and [that will] plunge the society into chaos,” he said, referring to violent events in 2019 that engulfed several university campuses, including HKU and CUHK.

The city must take “preventive measures” to avoid returning to the “chaotic state” of 2019, he said, adding: “No matter who you are, whether you are students, mainland students or the media… if you break the law, you have to bear the legal consequences.”

Tang added that university management was responsible for ensuring that “campuses won’t become the base of rioters again”.

Police called to tackle HKU protesters

Police were called to the HKU campus by the university’s management on 27 November after two mainland students put up posters in memory of the Urumqi fire, a deadly fire in an apartment block that killed at least 10 in the city of Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang region.

The protests on the streets in many cities and on over 100 university campuses in mainland China on 26-28 November were a shocked response to the deadly fire. Protesters in China maintained strict lockdown measures had contributed to the fatalities, leading to anger at harsh ‘Zero-COVID’ measures and disruptive testing regimes that have been imposed in the past two years in China.

HKU officials said the university became concerned as it was not clear at the time whether the two were students of HKU. No arrests were made but the students’ details were recorded by police.

The same day, as campus protests were spreading swiftly within China, a group of six HKU students holding blank sheets of paper were photographed, with their ‘solidarity action’ spreading virally in China.

Holding up sheets of white paper has become the hallmark of the protests in China this past week. In turn it came from protests in Hong Kong in 2020 when protesters held up blank sheets of paper to avoid the slogans banned as ‘seditious’ under the city’s national security law.

More small-scale protests were witnessed at HKU on Tuesday with two students chanting slogans from the ‘Sitong Bridge’ protests, according to videos circulating online.

Sitong Bridge protest posters refer to actions of a lone man who, on 13 October, unfurled two banners on Beijing’s Sitong flyover that were openly critical of Xi Jinping and his Zero-COVID policies. The slogans captured the imagination of lockdown-weary students and residents, and posters referring to the Sitong Bridge slogans began to appear on campuses.

The slogans include ‘Say no to COVID tests, yes to food’, ‘No to lockdown, yes to freedom’, ‘No to lies, yes to dignity’.

At CUHK an estimated 50 people gathered for a vigil on Monday to mourn the Urumqi victims, according to videos. The students held sheets of white paper and a sign near a pile of paper urged passers-by to “Take one” and “Write what you think, do what you want”.

CUHK campus security guards warned the students that it was an unauthorised gathering. Students later dispersed peacefully.

According to a report from student groups at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), a group of mainland Chinese students lit candles on campus on the night of 27 November in the form of the number ‘1124’ to commemorate those who died in the Xinjiang fire on 24 November. Students later dispersed.

Criticism of HKU for calling police

In Facebook posts, HKU students criticised their university for calling the police, insisting that mourning the Urumqi victims was an “act of humanity” without any political connotations and “no related criminal issues”. “What is there for a police officer to do?” wrote one HKU student.

Another student called Chan said the university’s action to call the police when there was no violation of the law was “an abuse of power”. Even checking the students’ identities was an invasion of students’ privacy that could have serious repercussion on their future, he wrote.

“When students hold large or small gatherings and police officers immediately become involved, [it amounts to] full control under the national security law,” wrote another.

However, other Hong Kong students were hopeful, noting that mainland students studying in Hong Kong were among some of the campus actions. “This shows that despite everything, mainland students are not, as we previously thought, brainwashed. They are just like us. They want rights just as we do,” said a student at HKU.

She predicted that it would bring mainland and Hong Kong students closer together, referring to rifts between the two groups, both in Hong Kong and on university campuses in other countries.

“They now understand what we went through in 2019,” she said.

A statement by over 50 Hong Kong diaspora organisations overseas released on Wednesday said: “We know well the courage and sacrifice required to oppose the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. We support you in any way we can and we call on all those in our communities to rise up together.”

“Hong Kong would normally be the hub of support for students on the mainland, standing up for their rights, but the tiny protests only demonstrate the extent to which they have lost their freedoms in the past two years.”

While many Hongkongers sympathise with the mainland protesters, they are pessimistic about the outcome of campus protests in China, pointing to the crackdown in Hong Kong after months of street protests in 2019, which led to widespread arrests of students, pro-democracy politicians and ordinary citizens. Many are now on trial, others convicted and jailed.

The crackdown put an end to freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, as well as freedom of expression on campuses. Posters have been routinely torn down and student unions disbanded.

Students say they expect the mainland protests to lead to mass arrests within China.