The City University of Hong Kong (CityU) searched some of its staff members’ storage areas for “unauthorised dangerous goods” after suspected petrol bombs and other explosives were found on campus. The head of CityU’s staff association John Tse said the searches were carried out without any valid reason and amounted to an “invasion of privacy,” sparking staff complaints.

In November, protesters – including some students – clashed with police on multiple university campuses, including at CityU where demonstrators hurled petrol bombs. On December 13, 34 Molotov cocktails, 20 smoke bombs, and 12 corrosive bombs were found on campus after a report was made to the police.

City University. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In an email seen by HKFP, one of the university’s department heads said that CityU management had asked department and unit heads to conduct a comprehensive search of all staff members’ work spaces.

The emailed stated that spare keys were to be used to access locked locations without the presence of staff. However, staff could be present during the procedure if they wished, and an observer from the department, unit, or the CityU General Office would also be present.

It was unclear if other departments also conducted searches.

CityU in response told HKFP: “CityU found a number of boxes of suspected petrol bombs on campus at night on 13 December. For safety reasons, the University has informed relevant government departments for handling the situation immediately.”

“To ensure campus safety and that of our staff and students, the University has requested all Heads and Deans to conduct a comprehensive search if there is any unauthorised dangerous goods. The units are asked to work with individual staff if there is a need to check,” it said.

Another source with knowledge of the matter told HKFP that his department only required staff members to make self-report as to whether there were “unauthorised dangerous goods” in work spaces.

Petrol bombs found at the City University of Hong Kong on December 13. 2019. Photo: City University of Hong Kong.

Tse, an associate professor at CityU’s Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences, told HKFP that CityU had not thought through their move and had made a “very bold assumption.” Tse said the searches were conducted ahead of the Christmas break.

“Should we assume students or staff members are responsible when there are conflicts at certain places in a university? Why are we responsible for events in public spaces?” he said.

“It was an invasion of privacy. And there was no written policy at CityU about under what conditions such searches can be conducted,” he added.

‘Overreacting’

Tse said he had received complaints about the move and it was irrelevant as to whether there were impartial observers were present during the searches: “There must be a very valid reason to open and check something that is locked… What if there was a five-carat diamond ring and it went missing? What if items were placed there during the search?”

John Tse. File Photo: inmediahk.net.

He said the university was overreacting after the protests outside the school last month, and the campus remains on lockdown with a large number of security guards present.

Students were unable to enter the library for a month, despite it not suffering any damage, he added.

Academic Benson Wong, of the Progressive Scholars Group, told HKFP the basis of the search was questionable: “The school has no reason to link suspected petrol bombs found on campus to its staff members,” he said.

Benson Wong. File Photo: inmediahk.net.

Wong said the move would set a bad precedent as other universities may do the same for its staff members: “The searches could occur when staff members are not present. It would be very difficult to make a complaint if items belonging to staff members were lost after the search,” he said.

HKFP has reached out to CityU for comment.


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Kris Cheng

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.