Hong Kong Polytechnic University has faced mounting criticism after punishing four students for taking part in a protest related to the campus bulletin board.

Nineteen student organisations issued a joint statement condemning the school on Saturday with pro-democracy political parties also urging the school to reverse their decision.

In an unusual move on Friday, Polytechnic University expelled master’s student Gerald Ho and permanently banned him from enrollment. Former student union leader Lam Wing-hang was handed a one-year suspension, and his former colleagues Owan Li and Hazel Cheng received community service orders for 120 and 60 hours respectively.

Lam Wing-hang Gerald Ho
Lam Wing-hang and Gerald Ho. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Last October, around ten students confronted the school’s executives after negotiations broke down over how to manage the campus bulletin board, known as the “democracy wall.” The school had taken control of the board from students after the appearance of messages supporting Hong Kong Independence.

During the confrontation at the executives’ offices, multiple students and security personnel fell on the ground, which the school later condemned as “unruly behaviour.” The university also said the students blockaded two school executives in their office.

School reputation

In an official document, the university said it expelled Ho because he defamed two professors – vice-president Geoffrey Shen and dean of students Esmond Mok – and physically blocked them from leaving.

Ho was quoted as using a derogatory epithet in Cantonese whilst saying that the two professors had taken money from Chinese communists and were bootlickers.

Other reasons listed included willful damage of university property, refusal to follow orders and conduct detrimental to the university’s reputation and well-being.

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.

In response, Ho said on Monday that he thought the school’s justifications were unreasonable and refused to apologise.

“I did not misstate any facts: would you say I defamed him by calling him a bootlicker, and saying he clamped down on free speech? This is an objective fact,” he said.

Ho also said he never used violence against school management, and that he only stood in front of Shen with his arms outstretched. While the public may see his actions as “not presentable” and “problematic,” he had a good reason to be angry, Ho added.

‘Out of proportion’

Political parties and civil society groups rallied around the four students, with some proposing the possibility of taking the university to court. On Monday the League of Social Democrats, the Neo Democrats and the Students Independence Union held a rally on the campus of Polytechnic University, calling for the decisions to be reviewed.

University student representatives also issued a joint statement over the weekend, saying that the penalties were “out of proportion” and that the Polytechnic University management intended to create a chilling effect on free speech.

polytechnic university protest
Groups protest PolyU’s decision to punish four student activists. Photo: inmediahk.net.

The statement was co-signed by 19 student groups, including the Federation of Students and student unions from the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University and others.

“PolyU’s atrocities trampled the significance and meaning of the Democracy Wall and showed its nonchalant and ignorant attitude towards students’ views,” the statement read.

“The Democracy Wall allows students to criticise the University authorities, free from pressure and interference. Universities should be places for cultivating intellectuality and stimulating debate and, thus, should accommodate all academic discussions, including Hong Kong independence,” it continued.

Fourteen pro-democracy lawmakers also issued a statement expressing “regret and anger” at the school’s decision, and asked for it to be reversed.

“Even if the four students made missteps, their intent was to protect the Democracy Wall and the freedom of speech. The university forcibly clamped down on them, and cannot deflect its own responsibility,” they wrote.

‘Brainwashed absurdity’

Kaizer Lau, a counciller at Polytechnic University, compared the behaviour of student protesters to “triads” and said the school was right to expel Ho.

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

“The video footage showed them shouting, and knocking on the doors to get the president to come out. This made me feel they were like triad members hunting people,” Lau told reporters on Saturday.

Former chief executive Leung Chun-ying also approved of the expulsion, saying that Ho’s version of free speech was “absurd and brainwashed.” Ho previously said that Hong Kong used to have better freedoms under British rule.

“Back in the day, students were beaten by police for voicing support for Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands. The officers were neither charged nor punished,” Leung wrote. “You should call for justice for senior police officer Frankly Chu!”

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.