Another student union faces dissolution as leaders resign

The future of yet another student union in Hong Kong hangs in the balance after all student members of its executive committee resigned this week, saying the university administration no longer recognises the union and was refusing to deal with its representatives.

Members of the executive committee of Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) Students’ Union – one of only two student unions still operating out of Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities (the other is at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) – published a social media message on 8 May in which it said it had “lost the right to participate in university affairs” and had been unable to participate in university meetings or book venues on campus.

“After lengthy contemplation, in order to produce a new temporary executive committee as soon as possible to maintain the daily affairs of the student union, all members of the student union executive council decided to resign,” the union said.

Recent elections

The union’s executive committee had been in place for only a month following recent student union elections – the first to be held at the university since 2019 when Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests began, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic which closed all campuses.

During that time, the university stopped collecting student union membership fees.

Membership of the union dropped to around 2,000 students out of a student body of 10,000 at HKBU. “While the number of members is small, the income and voice of the student union is not the same as it used to be,” the executive committee acknowledged in its inaugural statement on 2 April.

“The atmosphere of the city is not as good as before. In such a harsh environment, the process of forming a cabinet [executive committee] is very difficult, and many people are discouraged by concerns about the political pressure and excessive workload of the candidates,” it said.

‘Inaccurate information’

The resignation of the executive committee follows accusations brought against the union by the university’s administration, based on “complaints” received by the university from outside, about “inaccurate information” published by the union.

The complaints resulted in four executive committee members, the chair and two vice-chairs being immediately barred from taking part in school affairs until 31 August.

HKBU’s public relations office last month said that following “complaints about inaccurate information”, the university had investigated the union and found that some parts of the executive committee’s manifesto failed to comply with “societal norms and values”.

The university claimed in a statement that the union leadership’s description of past events in its annual work plan, election platform and online budget were “exaggerated, unfounded and biased”.

Unfair process

Student union members said this week the union’s executive committee members were not given a hearing or an opportunity to defend themselves against the “complaints”.

The executive committee in a statement on 17 April said it had been unable to check the specifics of the complaint.

“Senior university officials were willing to selectively disclose only part of the content [of the complaint letter] to protect the privacy of the complainant. Due to a complaint letter of unknown origin and unclear allegations, the university was able to punish this organisation.

“The union, as the subject of complaints, did not have the right to participate in the entire hearing process, nor was it given the opportunity to make public clarification or response. Therefore, I urge the university to give this association, students and the public a reasonable explanation to prove that university’s actions have been ‘detailed’ and are in accordance with procedure,” the statement said.

‘Another nail in the coffin’

The executive committee formed last month was also HKBU’s first union leadership elected since the National Security Law was imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in June 2020.

The liberal arts-focused HKBU is one of the smaller publicly funded universities in the city and its union affairs would normally not attract much attention. But against the backdrop of other student unions in Hong Kong being de-recognised or forced to disband in recent years, it is seen as “another nail in the coffin” for Hong Kong’s human rights climate, according to a HKBU student who spoke to University World News on condition of anonymity.

“Given what has happened on other campuses, it was only a matter of time before HKBU’s union went the same way,” she said. “The Hong Kong government only wants a single voice that is in alignment with Beijing. It does not want any other voices, including the student voice, or any voice that stands up to elect its own representatives.”

Another HKBU student told University World News: “Till now, our university union was not targeted because there was no election for the union executive committee. But the writing was already on the wall after what happened to the student newspaper editorial board which was also forced to resign after so-called ‘complaints’.”

Editorial board resigns

The HKBU student described the recent charges levelled against the student union as “unspecific, trumped up, and designed to put political pressure on the student union executive – just as they did with the editorial board”.

In January 2022, the entire editorial board of a HKBU student publication, which was a subsidiary of the student union and reported on student affairs as well as other news, including student protests and Hong Kong politics, collectively resigned, citing safety concerns and interference from the university.

The board said interference came in the form of the university asking the newspaper to delete content in response to complaints it had received. For example, the editorial board said the university had asked for “clarification” regarding its report on a flag-raising ceremony on campus in early January and was asked to delete content relating to “smart classroom” installation of surveillance cameras on campus.

Alex Chan, a then member of the editorial board, said the complaints came from “people outside the university” who had alleged that some of the content of the publication may be in violation of the National Security Law.

At the time Chan said in a social media post on 29 January 2022 that the Hong Kong Baptist University student union and university media had been “repeatedly suppressed”, adding that “union representatives have made many concessions in order to preserve the precarious … student union. They have no bottom line to cooperate with the school.”

Presciently, he wrote: “The future of the HKBU student union is worrying.”

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article