Hong Kong Polytechnic University has punished four students for a protest over a student union “free speech” bulletin board. The school said they misbehaved by assaulting school staff, refusing to comply with orders, and exhibiting conduct in detriment to the school’s reputation.

Master’s degree student Gerald Ho was kicked out of the school on Friday, and former student union leader Lam Wing-hang was handed a one-year suspension. Owan Li, a student and elected member of the school’s governing council, was ordered to do 120 hours of community service as a punishment. And Hazel Cheng, former external vice-president of the student union, was ordered to do 60 hours of community service.

Hazel Cheng Owan Li Lam Wing-hang Gerald Ho
From left: Hazel Cheng, Owan Li, Lam Wing-hang, Gerald Ho. Photo: PolyU Campus Radio.

Last September, the student union converted parts of its “Democracy Wall” to a “Lennon Wall” to mark the fourth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement protests, during which a similar wall was set up in Admiralty. Unlike its predecessor, the Lennon Wall had more relaxed guidelines on what could be posted. Messages supporting Hong Kong independence and the banned Hong Kong National Party soon appeared.

However, the university said the Lennon Wall modification broke regulations, so they asked the student union to remove it. After the union refused, the school taped red paper over the wall, declaring that it had taken over responsibility for its management.

Poly U hunger strike democracy wall
The ‘Lennon Wall’ at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Around ten students went to the office of the school’s executives and demanded an explanation. Multiple students and security personnel fell on the ground during a physical altercation, which the school later condemned as “unruly behaviour.” The university also said the students blockaded two school executives in their office.

Student leaders then conducted a 44-hour-long hunger strike before the school agreed to their demands over control of the notice board. But around a month after the incident unfolded, the students who participated in the school office protest were investigated by a school disciplinary committee.

Owan Li Gerald Ho Lam Wing-hang
Owan Li, Gerald Ho and Lam Wing-hang protesting against school management in October 2018. File Photo: inmediahk.net.

Ho told reporters at a Friday press conference that he was informed that he will never be admitted to any programme offered by the university in the future: “I once said, no matter if I am expelled or jailed, I still have to stand up for what’s right and protect the Democracy Wall. If I had to do it all over again, I would still choose the same [path],” he said.

“Some people say we were [protesting] to get ahead or cause disruption, but that’s not true. I am a nursing student – realistically, once I graduate, I would be paid HK$30,000 a month. If I wanted to get ahead, I can do it at the hospital. The reason I stood up was because Hong Kong’s freedom of speech had already deteriorated a lot,” he added.

Owan Li said he was surprised by the result: “There were no clear guidelines for issuing the punishments.”

Meanwhile, Lam Wing-hang said the punishment created a very bad precedent: “If our students in the future protest against anything, they will be punished as well… [The school] is creating white terror.”

PolyU security guard protest
A security guard falling on the ground at the protest in October 2018 at Polytechnic University. File Photo: inmediahk.net.

The university declined to comment on the case out of privacy concerns, but told HKFP that the incident was investigated fully by a special Student Discipline Committee: “Committed to nurturing good citizens, PolyU is keen to ensure that our students would behave in a proper way and it will not tolerate any unruly behavior.”

Lam said that the school’s decision was final, but they will try to find other means to overturn the decision. He added that, even though there were injuries during a physical altercation, he also fell on the ground and did not assault anyone.

“We did not insult anyone… Our freedom of speech was stripped – so who damaged the reputation of the school? I believe it was, in fact, the school management.”

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.