Fourteen executive members of the City University of Hong Kong (CityU) students’ union have been fined HK$7,000 each for breaching the Covid-related limit on public gatherings while taking a photo on campus.

All 14 defendants, age 19 to 22, pleaded guilty in front of Stephanie Tsui at the Kowloon City Magistrates’ Courts on Friday.

CityU Student Union
Jason Lau (left) and Ethan Chan (right), the president and the vice president of the City University of Hong Kong students’ union on September 23, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP

CityU’s student body organised a “parting ceremony” before it moved out of its office on campus in February upon the request of the university. The eviction came after the union failed to hand over 16 years of audited financial records before a two-week deadline.

According to the case summary read out in court, the students’ union called for students to gather outside its office at 3 p.m. on February 7, 2021, the deadline for the union to vacate its premises.

City University student union
Representatives of the City University of Hong Kong Students’ Union. Photo: City Broadcasting Channel (CBC).

About 100 people – led by executive members of the student body – walked across campus, while university staff held warning signs reminding the group that they were in violation of the two-person gathering limit. The crowd dispersed after the president and two vice presidents finished their speeches outside the union’s office, according to the case summary.

From 5:01 p.m. to 5:04 p.m. on that day, the 14 executive members stood in a row in front of the university’s “Democracy Wall” and took a group photo, which later became evidence for the prosecution, the prosecutor said.

City University student union
Photo: City Broadcasting Channel (CBC).

Tsui said that the gathering limit was in place for a reason, and people were obligated to adhere to the regulations. The defence told Tsui that the student representatives were regretful, adding that they did not take their masks off at the scene.

“Farewell ceremony”

In February, the police confirmed that officers from its National Security Department were looking into the union after receiving reports that people had congregated on CityU campus and written messages that were seen to incite Hong Kong independence.

City University student union
Messages left on the democracy wall at the City University of Hong Kong. Photo: City Broadcasting Channel (CBC).

Some students also pushed over barricades to leave final messages to the union on memo stickers on the “democracy wall” – a message board previously used by students to express political views.

HKFP has reached out to the police for clarification on whether the group is still under investigation.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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Lea Mok is a multimedia reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously contributed to StandNews, The Initium, MingPao and others. She holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.