A university student leader has said a joint statement from university heads about Hong Kong independence slogans in schools was a threat to students in order to stop them from creating more trouble.
The debate was sparked after independence slogans appeared around university campuses at the start of the school year. Some of the institutions removed the messages, prompting discontent among student unions, who insisted they were the ones responsible for managing their message boards.
The heads of ten universities issued a joint statement last Friday, which said: “We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities. All universities undersigned agree that we do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law.”
Student unions of 12 higher education institutions soon issued a counter statement last Saturday in a similar format.
“We treasure freedom of expression, which is the right that we are born with. The universities do not support Hong Kong independence, but teachers and students still enjoy the freedom of speech to discuss Hong Kong independence. All students’ unions undersigned agree that discussion on Hong Kong independence is protected under Article 27 of the Basic Law. We urge the universities to stop misleading the public,” the statement read.
Ryan Lee, the president of Lingnan University Students’ Union, said the school’s head Leonard Cheng initially took a stance that students could discuss Hong Kong independence, even though he did not support the idea.
“I am worried that the heads of ten universities have become political puppets,” Lee said on a Commercial Radio programme. “I feel they have received orders to do so, since the heads of each university had different speeches [over independence], but this statement came out in just two days, whilst reports said they still don’t have a consensus.”
The statement from university chiefs did not elaborate as to what the “recent abuses” were. A CUHK spokesperson did not answer directly when asked by HKFP to clarify.
Lee said the statement may involve the pro-independence slogans, or messages “congratulating” the death of Education Undersecretary Choi Yuk-lin’s son: “But I will say they wanted this to be a warning, or a threat, telling our students not to stir things up again, not to voice out for justice and freedom.”
He said there was a consensus among students that the governing bodies of universities were being controlled by pro-Beijing appointees, such as lawmaker Junius Ho.
“Are the vice-chancellors of universities thinking of students’ interests? We don’t think so,” he said.
Lee said Cheng had asked the student union whether the school can co-manage the message boards with the student union on the basis of security, but it declined. Lee said the school management of Lingnan took a relatively tolerant approach, but it made a u-turn soon as the joint statement was issued.
‘No room for discussion’
The head of the Chinese University of Hong Kong had said the school will remove pro-independence slogans from message boards if its student union fails to act. Just a day earlier, the school’s vice-president said that slogans would not be removed without communication with the student union.
Lee said that the Lingnan student union will help its counterparts at other universities if schools forcefully remove slogans on their message boards.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said on Saturday that he agreed with the university heads’ joint statement against independence.
Asked whether the government put pressure on the institutions, Cheung said the universities are autonomous but their message is “clear and correct.” He said the government would not tolerate independence, which “challenges the bottom line of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“There is no room for discussion on the issue of Hong Kong independence,” he said.
The group Hong Kong Future Concern Group wrote to the student association of University of Edinburgh, inviting the association to ask Peter Mathieson, the head of the University of Hong Kong, about his stance on the discussion of Hong Kong and Scottish independence in Edinburgh. He will take on the role of vice-chancellor of University of Edinburgh next year.
“A conduct, such [as] euthanasia, may violate the law, but it does not mean that the discussion of the conduct violates the law. In many secondary schools, the debate contests have been around such controversial issues,” the group said.
Meanwhile, around ten pro-Beijing protesters from the “Caring Hong Kong Power” appeared near the message boards of the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Sunday and tore down slogans.
They put up a message that read “This place is China.” University security guards were later deployed to try and prevent from tearing down slogans, whilst police officers arrived following reports by the public. The group left after staying at the university for four hours.