Student union leaders at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) have announced their resignation, citing legal intimidation and death threats to them and their families, after the university management severed ties with the union on national security grounds.

Issac Lam Yiu-hei, president of the student union cabinet known as “Syzygia,” said all members submitted their resignations on Monday after they had been sworn in earlier that day, “to take political responsibility” for withdrawing their election manifesto last week.

CUHK student union cabinet announcing their resignation on Monday. Photo: StandNews, via video screenshot.

The manifesto and an election declaration caused the management to announce last week it would cut ties with the union on the grounds that the material made false statements and might breach the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing last June.

After the university announcement last Thursday, union leaders responded by withdrawing the election manifesto and declaration.

“Our choice to resign today is to take political responsibility for the withdrawal of our election documents,” Lam told a press conference on Monday. “We know this disappoints our voters, and we cannot absolve ourselves of blame.”

Lam said cabinet members had felt “increasing political pressure from the university,” which had threatened to “disavow” the entire Chinese University Student Union if Syzygia refused to withdraw from the election.

He said the decision to withdraw the election documents was prompted by pressure and threats.

“Our decision was due to unprecedented pressure and menace that not only affected our student status, but could result in tens of years’ imprisonment,” said Lam. “Many of us even received nuisance calls and even death threats, not just to us but to our family members.”

He apologised to union voters and the general public but said cabinet members could not bear to place family members “in great danger just because of our election platform.”

CUHK Student union press conference
CUHK student union cabinet announcing their resignation on Monday. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

The management of CUHK said in a statement after Lam’s press conference that it had never intended to threaten or isolate the cabinet or any other student association.

“CUHK would like to reiterate that it absolutely respects academic freedom and freedom of speech,” the statement read.

“However, when members of the university voice their opinion, they must be rational, respect each other, and obey the law. We do not allow any acts that are illegal or may tarnish the reputation of the university.”

Tensions between students and management have been increasing in recent months, after national security police made several arrests in response to on-campus protests at which students displayed slogans banned under the security law.

Some students were concerned about security checks instituted after violent clashes erupted on campus in 2019 amid the city-wide pro-democracy protests.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.