Hong Kong students are fearful that campuses could become a free speech battleground after authorities at the city’s most prestigious university tore down a “Lennon Wall” once plastered with messages of support for pro-democracy protesters.

The walls were created to display articles, photos and posters to show solidarity with last year’s demonstrators, many of whom were secondary school or university students.

A photo of HKU’s Lennon Wall taken on September 28, 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

But some of these walls filled with memo notes and protest art are now vanishing.

The Lennon Wall at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) was initially demolished by a group of mostly middle-aged individuals on September 26, but the student union and their peers refurbished it with new posters three days later.

A photo of HKU’s Lennon Wall taken on September 28, 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The revamped wall lasted for 10 days only, however, and the people who tore down the posters this time were the university authorities.

The university said its Accommodation Committee had decided to take back control of the site, which had been allocated to the student union in 2017.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The arrangement expired last Thursday, and the school – in taking back the area and barricading it – cited “safety and management concerns” due to what it called a heavy pedestrian flow on Upper University Street.

“The University will continue to hold discussions with the Students’ Union to explore and identify other areas suitable for student activities which will not impede traffic flow,” it said on Monday.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The students’ union executive committee expressed regret at the decision, saying the Lennon Wall had expressed students’ desire for democracy and freedom. It said students had previously managed to restore the wall despite multiple attempts to vandalise it and what it described as widespread “white terror” under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Pro-democracy posters at the HKUSU building. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“Students’ desire for democracy and freedom cannot be obliterated whoever the right of management belongs to… even if this HKU Lennon Wall is demolished, Lennon Walls could be anywhere as long as there is a will,” the union wrote in a Facebook post last Saturday.

A visiting HKFP reporter on Monday found the site of the former Lennon Wall sealed off with plastic barricades. All protest-related material had been removed.

Pro-democracy posters at the HKUSU building. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

But across the campus in Pokfulam, many pro-democracy posters were still displayed on the bulletin boards managed by the student union as well as on the windows and doors of the union building.

Many of them alleged police brutality and other misconduct, while one featured a photo of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, along with the now-banned slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” The government said in July that the slogan has pro-independence and secessionist connotations and is thus an offence under the national security law.

A photo of Chief Executive Carrie Lam with the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

A Year Four student who only wanted to be identified as Wong told HKFP she believed the university’s decision to take back the Lennon Wall site was intended to target and suppress anti-government students. The 21-year-old said she herself had never left a note there but she would always read the posters to stay abreast of latest developments and opinions on political issues.

HKU’s democracy wall. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“The university should provide an inclusive and welcoming environment for students with different political views and backgrounds to voice their opinions, but their act is suppressing students’ freedom of speech,” Wong said, adding that she feared other campus material featuring calls for democracy and freedom would also be taken down soon.

“It is obvious that the university is under political oppression, so I believe there will be more and more actions by the university to ban students from discussing political issues on campus.”

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Lam has said law enforcement agencies may take matters into their own hands if local universities fail to promote and provide education about the national security law, as required by the legislation.

“Universities are duty-bound to work on this aspect… if necessary, when they don’t have the ability to implement the requirements, law enforcement agencies will of course handle it,” Lam told a press conference last week.

Pro-democracy posters at on a bulletin board. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

At the Hong Kong Polytechnic, scene of an especially fierce days-long clash between police and protesters last year, student union president Morris Chan said students were still allowed to display posters on a democracy wall, which is managed by the student union with the agreement of university authorities.

But authorities would frequently review the wording of material, he said. Even before the sweeping security legislation came into force on June 30, PolyU staff would cover up words such as “independence”, saying they should not appear on campus.

A flag-raising ceremony at PolyU on October 1, 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The 20-year-old said that unlike at HKU, there was no expiry date for the student union’s management of the democracy wall. If the school decided one day to take back control of it, Chan admitted the union would be helpless to prevent it.

“If they choose to suppress voices expressed through this wall, we can do nothing about it. But as a prestigious institution that values academic freedom, if they don’t allow freedom of expression, I don’t see why the university deserves a high ranking,” he said in a phone interview with HKFP.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Chris Hung, chief editor of the City University of Hong Kong’s editorial board, said his school also has a pro-democracy message board that is under renovation at the moment. But he said some posters with independence messages had been removed recently due to concerns about the controversial security legislation.

In response to Lam’s remarks on promoting and educating the national security law in universities, Wong from HKU said this would hinder pro-democracy students in expressing their views.

Popular protest character Pepe the Frog. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“It is impossible for the government to provide politically neutral guidelines to universities: the materials used in lectures to educate students about the law might be one-sided,” she said.

Chan of the Hong Kong Polytechnic had similar concerns. “If the school really promotes the national security law… maybe writing an essay would breach the law. This would indeed be a major blow to academic freedom and freedom of expression.”

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.