Student movements in Hong Kong should seek to “decentralise” as distrust in those who run the city’s universities grows, according to activist Owen Au who has just been jailed for six months over an unlawful assembly in 2019.

The call from the former Chinese University (CUHK) student union president comes as he was convicted and sentenced for gathering illegally during a march in Kowloon on October 20, 2019.

Owen Au photographed on November 13, 2020 during an exhibition organised by the CUHK students’ union to mark one year since police and protesters clashed violently on the Sha Tin campus. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The demonstration – in protest against a ban on face masks – descended into violent clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters. Au, 22, was also found guilty of violating the anti-mask law and possessing a can of spray paint with an intention to damage property.

“[Campus] is definitely no longer a safe place for students to express themselves.”

owen au

On Wednesday, Au wore a fresh buzz cut as he was transferred to court for sentencing. He and his four co-defendants had been in custody for more than two weeks since they were found guilty in mid-May.

During the hearing, Magistrate Jacky Ip cited a report from the Correctional Services Department which said the university student “did not understand the seriousness” of his offences despite his conviction. Au’s counsel defended him by saying while he did not show a “traditional kind of remorse,” he was ready to bear consequences for his actions.

Beyond expectation

In an interview with HKFP during his trial in March, Au said he was mentally prepared to serve time in prison, but that the crackdown on freedom and rights in the city has been on “such a grand scale” it was beyond anything he expected.

The young activist was referring to CUHK’s “unprecedented” move in February to cut ties with the now-disbanded student cabinet, Syzygia, by refusing administrative support. The university accused the elected student representatives of “exploiting the campus for their political propaganda.”

Members of Syzygia resigned en masse on March 1, 2021, citing political pressure. Photo: inmedia.hk, via CC 2.0.

Members of Syzygia later resigned en masse citing political pressure.

The Year Four student, who chaired the student’ union in 2018 and 2019, said the treatment of Syzygia showed the space for free speech on campus was “shrinking rapidly.”

The relationship between students and the school authorities had been “deteriorating” for some time, he said, especially after the Sha Tin campus turned into a brutal protest battleground for five days in November 2019.

“Beijing and the authorities have treated opposition in society with this antagonistic approach. This has put pressure on the school management to not remain on good terms with student leaders who are against the regime,” Au told HKFP.

“Both sides are getting more and more distrustful… [the CUHK campus] is definitely no longer a safe place for students to express themselves,” he added.

In a little over three years, Au found himself going from speaking for students to spending months behind bars. He was also arrested in January in connection with a clash on campus, in which a handful of masked individuals pushed down metal fences and threw white powder at guards in protest of the university’s security measures. The 22-year-old has not been officially charged.

Too naive?

Asked why he wanted to lead the union in the first place, the politics student said he wanted to do something for society: “Everyone was young once,” Au said as he giggled, reflecting on whether his goal was “too naïve.”

Protesters blocked an entrance to CUHK on November 13, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

As a result of his conviction, Au’s graduation will be delayed. He said he was still not sure if he would continue to take part in the city’s pro-democracy movement after leaving university.

“Our plans can never keep up with the changes… we never know what will happen tomorrow. I think we can only try to live every day well,” he said.

In making his plea in mitigation plea on May 18, Au said he decided not to ask any of his teachers to pen letters supporting him as he wanted to avoid “implicating” them in “absolving black violence.”

In a lengthy personal letter, the former CUHK student leader said he understood that he had violated Hong Kong’s laws and was willing to bear the consequences.

“I have absolutely no complaints, because this is the destiny I chose autonomously,” Au told the court in his written mitigation plea.

Demonstration scenes from October 20, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The student activist looked back on his involvement in the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement and the frustration he felt in the following year when the appetite for activism waned and society became “aloof.”

Au said a feeling of “hopelessness” at that time was reflected in a surge in student suicides – one of whom was a good friend. His friend’s death led the university student to question his political beliefs: “I started thinking, this so-called self-determination in a cruel society, perhaps was only a ridiculous joke.”

Au said his views changed when he was introduced to Buddhism, which taught him that everything – the ups and downs of life – were “ephemeral.”

Despite his arrest during the 2019 unrest, he said he did not feel the same sense of powerlessness he had previously. He described Hongkongers as “working painstakingly” for the city’s future, an effort which, he believes, would produce “infinite possibilities.”

Owen Au photographed on November 13, 2020 during an exhibition organised by the CUHK students’ union to mark one year since police and protesters clashed violently on the Sha Tin campus. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Changing world

“Because of past history, people in our generation had no choice not to be born in a Hong Kong where the freedom of expression and political rights are gradually diminishing. In the summer two years ago, we chose to resist our destiny and showed the world our self-determination awareness. Now, we have to bear responsibility for this choice. The world is changing, perhaps it is becoming better, or maybe it is disintegrating. But regardless of what is waiting for us upfront, I believe we belong to the generation of self-determination – we are all using our own methods to guard our positions, painstakingly developing a better, new era that truly belongs to us,” wrote Au in his plea in mitigation.

One of the possibilities may lie in a new mode of student activism. In March, Au suggested that youngsters can no longer rely on a “main stage” to lead the movement. Students’ unions may also need to change their roles to become a bridge among civil society groups, instead of simply airing public criticism of the authorities.

“The authorities will [go after] whoever becomes high-profile. Decentralising means there is a greater space for people to get involved. We may see various forms of student organisations making an impact in the future,” he said.

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.