A student-led protest at last week’s HKU Council meeting has evoked polarised reactions from public figures. The protest took place after the council upheld a ruling to delay the appointment of a new pro-vice chancellor. Many considered the decision as an indication of political interference from the pro-establishment camp against supporters of democracy.

The HKU confrontation was met with both criticism and support. Here are the opinions of eight public figures:

Students occupy HKU Council meeting.
Students forced their way into HKU Council meeting on July . Photo: HKU Undergrad via Facebook.

1. “Mob Rule” — Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, HKU Council and Executive Council member

Arthur Li said on Tuesday that someone had punched him from behind near his right kidney during the confusion. “In a melee like that, it’s inevitable somebody behind me punched me,” he said. “That night I went home and checked my urine and luckily I didn’t have any blood.”

Following the protest, Li was among those in the pro-establishment camp who called the students “Red Guards”, referencing a paramilitary group of youngsters who supported Mao Zedong during China’s Cultural Revolution.

“I was deprived of freedom, freedom of movement. I was deprived of food. I was not allowed to go out and have my dinner. I was ridiculed,” said Li. “And it’s very unfair to the lady members of the council. These are gentle ladies.”

He said the Red Guard comparison was not an extreme view. “[The Red Guards] made the professors come out, sit down, kneel down, admit that they’ve done wrong. It’s a revision of the whole thing. This was mob rule.”

arthur li hku council protest
Arthur Li says in a TVB Pearl programme that he was hit in the right kidney at last week’s HKU protest.

2. “A hotbed of Hong Kong independence” — Lau Nai-keung, Basic Law Committee member and HKU alumnus

Prominent politician Lau Nai-keung wrote in Tai Kung Pao on Monday that the protest revealed a blatant attempt by people advocating Hong Kong independence at taking power at local universities. “The Central Government must intervene at some point.”

Lau said HKU was no longer what it used to be, especially since it is run by a Brit who is “incompetent” in terms of scholarship and administration. “This fake HKU, funded with taxpayers’ money, has humiliated all HKU alumni and the whole of Hong Kong.”

He said students should be arrested for illegally detaining council members. HKU should also be charged with obstructing police officers as it was reluctant to let officers onto the campus. HKU President Peter Mathieson said that students might have violated school rules, but had not broken the law. Mathieson has been under attack by the pro-Beijing camp for not reporting the students.

Lau Nai-keung Peter Mathieson hku council
Lau Nai-keung (left) and Peter Mathieson. & HKU.

3. “To Beijing, totalitarianism is democracy” — Joseph Lian Yizheng, veteran commentator

Joseph Lian criticised Arthur Li for being arrogant and combative. He said that the council system, established by the colonial government, allowed the chief executive to have total control over the university through directly appointing council members. An area of governance exclusive to the council is financial resource allocation.

Lian explained that the Chinese Communist Party established a policy that all tertiary schools in China must be overseen by the Central Government in 1950.

In some faculties there are more mainland teaching staff than locals, whereas very few were from mainland China 20 years ago, Lian said. With close ties to China, many mainland employees in universities are probably monitored and influenced by the China Liaison Office as well as underground members of the Communist Party, he said, warning that there would be more political interference in university councils.

Joseph Lian Yizheng
Joseph Lian Yizheng.

4. “Students are the most important stakeholder” — Professor Kwok Sun, dean of HKU science faculty

In an open letter sent to HKU members on Tuesday, Professor Kwok Sun said that as the most important stakeholder of the university, students’ concern about the appointment controversy was “a healthy sign”. Kwok revealed that most council members had expected the appointment would be made early this year.

Kwok also responded to a joint statement issued by ten HKU deans condemning the students for confronting officials, saying that the youngsters should continue to defend academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

hku professor kwok sun
Professor Kwok Sun.

5. “Scholars should not remain silent over injustice” — Benny Tai, HKU law professor and founder of the pro-democracy Occupy Central campaign

Benny Tai expressed disappointment with the decision of a teacher representative to resign from the council following the protest, saying that scholars have obligations to resist injustice. “When those in positions of power are so mighty, we may not be able to effect any change. But at least we’ve tried our best and fulfilled our obligations as intellectuals,” the law professor said.

Tai added: “If every scholar chooses to keep silent amid controversies, it will not be long before Hong Kong collapses.”

Professor Benny Tai (centre) at a direct action training session. Photo: Occupy Central with Love and Peace via Facebook.

6. “Swearing constitutes common assault” — Christopher Chung Shu-kun, HKU Court member and DAB lawmaker

Christopher Chung said on Monday that demonstrators who swore at HKU Council members could be sued for common assault. “People were swearing, frightening some council members. Some of the members were injured. If you swear at people, you will probably be sued for common assault.”

chung shu kun dab hong kong legco lawmaker looking at things
DAB lawmaker Christopher Chung Shu-kun. Photo: Chung Shu-kun via Facebook.

7. “Spoiled brats and rioters” — Lawrence Lau Juen-yee, former vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong

On Monday, Lawrence Lau wrote in an op-ed entitled “Save our future generations” that student protesters should be imprisoned for their “mob-like behaviour”. He called students arrogant and self-centred spoiled brats who have no respect for the rights of others. His wife is an HKU Council member who fell ill during last week’s protest and subsequently went to hospital.

8. “We don’t need your salvation” — CUHK Student Union

In response to Lau’s criticism, the CUHK Student Union issued an open letter on Wednesday stating that Lau did not mention once the demands of students and had instead accused them of being rioters. The HKU Council members’ violation of procedural justice is a form of violence, the union said.

lawrance lau cuhk student union hku council
Lawrance Lau (left), and university student leaders burning the university ordinance symbolising their discontent with the council system. Photo: CUHK Student Union via Facebook.

It added that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had interfered with institutional autonomy through the council system, but as the former vice-chancellor of CUHK, Lau instead chose to side with the powerful and permit structural violence against powerless students.

It cited Lau’s speech at his inauguration as CUHK vice-chancellor, in which Lau compared university governance to running a restaurant. He compared chancellor to restaurant owner and students to customers. Lau said that students could choose not to attend the school if they did not like it, and should accept decisions made by the school.

The student union accused Lau of being power-thirsty and self-centred.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.