Law professor Eric Cheung Tat-ming has quit the governing council of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), after it barred student leaders from campus over their expressions of sympathy for a man who stabbed a policeman.

Speaking on Commercial Radio on Thursday, Cheung said he filed an immediate letter of resignation the night before. His departure came less than a day after 32 students were denied access to the Pok Fu Lam campus and other university facilities and services pending a police investigation.

Eric Cheung
Eric Cheung. Photo: Eric Cheung, via Facebook.

Cheung said he did not attend a special meeting called by the HKU Council on Thursday, which discussed “necessary actions for risk mitigation” in light of the potentially unlawful act of the student union council on July 7.

The student body had passed a resolution to “express deep sadness” for the death of Leung Kin-fai, who stabbed and injured a police officer in Causeway Bay before killing himself with the same knife on July 1, the city’s 24th handover anniversary. The motion – which praised Leung’s “sacrifice” – was condemned by the authorities as “whitewashing violence” and was withdrawn two days later, while leaders of the student union stepped down and apologised.

While he agreed that the students had made a mistake, Cheung questioned the power of the HKU Council to take disciplinary action against those involved. He said the university has statutory procedures to handle disciplinary matters, namely through a Disciplinary Committee which would allow the people concerned to explain themselves.

“I am very sad… why, as a university, are we not helping students to correct themselves after making a mistake?” Cheung asked.

The former HKU Student Union office. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“[I]t seems the decision made by the HKU Council this time is basically ultra vires,” he added.

In shutting out the student leaders, the HKU governing body, led by Executive Councillor Arthur Li, said on Thursday that their presence on campus would pose “serious legal and reputational risks” to the university.

But Cheung, a principal lecturer at the Faculty of Law, did not agree, saying the university had already cut ties with the student union. It has been evicted from its premises and no longer recognised as a independent registered association on campus.

“Those students have done something, and whether that amounted to illegal acts, under our system, [there should be] presumption of innocence. If someone gets involved in a criminal case, it is a personal matter,” he said.

HKU is currently on a summer break and the new semester will begin on September 1. If the banishment extends beyond September, the dozens of students concerned will not be able to attend lectures or tutorials on campus.

Tiananmen Square Massacre Pillar of Shame HKUSU
Charles Kwok, former president of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Cheung said the HKU Council’s decision was in effect “stripping [those involved] of their rights to be students.”

Asked whether his resignation was triggered by the ban on student leaders, Cheung said he would not give a direct answer, adding there were “many considerations” involved.

Some HKU alumni have begun an online petition to urge the HKU Council to revoke its action against the student council members. The petition cited the University of Hong Kong Ordinance and said the governing body did not have power to penalise students without going through the Disciplinary Committee.

It accused the HKU Council of depriving the student leaders of their right to challenge the penalty, which was put in place to ensure the interests of students remain unaffected until an appeal verdict.

“The HKU Council decision, however, was implemented immediately until further notice. This practice obviously breaches the due process stated in the procedures,” the petition read.

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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.