HK campuses as political battlefields

Source: SCMP (10/30/19)
Hong Kong university chiefs caught in crossfire as protest tensions risk turning campuses into political battlefields
Backing protesters risks offending authorities; condemning violence will anger students. Students attend lectures dressed in black, equipped to go directly to protests if needed.
By Chris Lau and Gigi Choy

Students make up about a fifth of the 2,711 people arrested over protests since June. Illustration: Perry Tse

Students make up about a fifth of the 2,711 people arrested over protests since June. Illustration: Perry Tse

Chinese University vice-chancellor Rocky Tuan Sung-chi found himself surrounded by his students, some dressed in black, some masked, many upset and in tears.

They demanded that he and the university condemn police brutality in Hong Kong’s ongoing anti-government protests, now in their fifth month. Some called him “a disgrace to Chinese University” for staying silent, while others pointed laser beams at him.

The October 10 meeting took a dramatic turn when a female student whipped off her mask and claimed she was sexually abused while in police custody after being arrested at a protest.

He found himself under fresh attack immediately.

Rocky Tuan has come under fire for his statement. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Rocky Tuan has come under fire for his statement. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Infuriated police unions condemned him for being biased by failing to mention the havoc wreaked by protesters that led to their arrest. Adding fuel to the fire, Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily then criticised Tuan for paying heed only to students’ voices.

Former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying was more scathing, accusing him of “cowardice” and asking in a Facebook post: “Vice-chancellor Tuan, are you sure you picked the right career?”

The chairmen of the governing councils of the city’s eight publicly funded universities issued a statement saying universities should not be dragged into the “vortex of politics”.

The protests have put Hong Kong’s university administrators in the hot seat.

They know their students are involved in increasingly violent protests that have shut down the MTR system and left banks, shopping malls, restaurants and public areas trashed.

Hong Kong has been rocked by protests since June. Photo: Edmond So

Hong Kong has been rocked by protests since June. Photo: Edmond

Students make up about a fifth of the 2,711 people arrested since June. According to other figures as of October 23, of about 540 students arrested during that period, 58 were from Polytechnic University, 57 from Chinese University, 44 from the University of Hong Kong, 21 from Education University, 16 from Baptist University and four from Lingnan University.

For university administrators, taking their students’ side risks offending the authorities, police and possibly Beijing. Condemning the violence and disruption will anger students.

Unlike Tuan, most university chiefs have steered clear of controversy, refraining from condemning alleged police brutality or protesters’ violence. Some have said nothing at all.

On Wednesday evening, a group of students at HKU followed vice-chancellor Zhang Xiang home after a petition signed by 3,120 students, teachers and alumni failed to move him to answer to their demands, including to condemn police officers who allegedly resorted to inappropriate violence.

Earlier in July, some 300 students and staff also knocked on his door, requesting a dialogue. He met them and defused the situation, or so it would have seemed then.

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen expects universities to face “multiple challenges ahead from all fronts” as Hong Kong’s unrest continues with no end in sight.

The job for university leaders would only get tougher, he said, because it was inevitable that they would be caught between the interests of idealistic students and their management, which also has other stakeholders to think about.

Classes proceeding, mostly as usual

The Post put questions to the city’s eight publicly funded universities and two private institutions, Hang Seng University and Shue Yan University. The University of Science and Technology (HKUST), HKU, Chinese University, Education University, Baptist University, Lingnan University, and Hang Seng University replied. The other three, PolyU, City University and Shue Yan University, did not respond.

Students from these 10 universities announced a two-week class boycott from September 2, in a bid to pressure the government into meeting protesters’ five demands, which included the withdrawal of the hated extradition bill.

The bill, which triggered the ongoing protests that have now morphed into an anti-government movement, would have allowed Hong Kong to send fugitives to – among other places – mainland China for trial. It was formally withdrawn last Wednesday.

Leung Chun-ying took aim at Rocky Tuan for his comments. Photo: Winson Wong

Leung Chun-ying took aim at Rocky Tuan for his comments. Photo: Winson Wong

But protesters are still fighting for four other demands: an independent commission of inquiry to look into alleged police brutality during protests; an end to referring to protests as riots; amnesty for those arrested and charged; and universal suffrage.

The universities which responded to the Post did not report a big impact from the boycott of classes, although HKU, Hang Seng University, Chinese University and Baptist University advised their faculty to be flexible in case of disruptions.

PolyU assistant professor of sociology Chung Kim-wah noticed a drop in the number of students when the boycott began, but the situation returned to normal after a few days.

It was not like in 2014, when students who took part in the Occupy protests stayed away. “At the time, people took to the streets and camped outside for weeks,” he said.

This year has been different. “This time, the battlefield is everywhere,” he said.

So, instead of skipping classes, he said, students turn up dressed in black, ready to head out to a protest if needed. Some wear masks, in defiance of a government ban, while others have their full protest gear – including helmets and masks – to fend off police batons and tear gas.

Teng Jin-guang refused to shake hands with a masked graduate. Photo: Chan Ho-him

Teng Jin-guang refused to shake hands with a masked graduate. Photo: Chan Ho-him

Chung said some teachers allowed students to record the lectures and share with their friends who had skipped class.

The protests led universities to call off some events. In a rare move, HKU, Chinese University, Polytechnic University, Baptist University, Lingnan University and Education University cancelled their inauguration ceremonies, which students sometimes use as a platform to make political statements.

Graduation ceremonies have so far been largely unaffected.

Since Sunday, however, PolyU president Teng Jin-guang has come under fire after he declined to shake hands with students who wore masks during their graduation ceremonies. Teng was accused of failing to respect people with different political views.

Tensions with faculty and among students

Similar tensions have also surfaced in other faculty interactions and among students themselves.

Earlier this month, a veteran lecturer at Hong Kong Community College – a subsidiary of PolyU – was asked to move to a non-teaching role after students were enraged by his criticism of protesters in an article published in a Chinese-language newspaper.

Chan Wai-keung, who had taught there for 14 years, called for heavier sentences for those who ignored the ban on masks. More than 100 students surrounded and heckled him in his classroom.

Two weeks ago, a Singaporean assistant marketing professor, Tan Yong Chin, had his office defaced and spray-painted with pro-democracy slogans and messages condemning him, after he told his students not to use their presentations in class to broadcast their political statements or they risked getting zero for their scores.

The divisions in Hong Kong society over the protests are present among students too.

Hongkonger Fiona Chan, 21, a social work student at Baptist University, felt it was important that the institution took a position against police. “The school needs to draw clear red lines and specifically condemn police violence,” she said, while wearing a mask.

But Nicole Yeung Ho-ting, 20, a Baptist University geography student, disagreed. “This isn’t what universities are supposed to do, they are only responsible for our education,” she said.

She believes each allegation against the police should be scrutinised individually, but she admitted that she does not dare confront other students on this issue.

“If you say something others don’t agree with, they can get very angry,” she said. “I will only make my opinion heard through WhatsApp messages, not in person. I’m worried about getting hurt or being doxxed.”

Some students also appeared to be stretched emotionally by the months of protests. Four universities said they have stepped up counselling services for their students, and some are providing legal support to those who need it.

Students from the mainland lie low

On various campuses, colourful “Lennon Walls” have sprung up where messages of support for protesters are posted. Students at some universities erected a “Lady Liberty” statue, a symbol of the movement, as the popular protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong played in the background.

Demonstrations have become anti-mainland China at times, with protesters targeting businesses perceived to be close to Beijing, trashing their premises as well as those of Hong Kong branches of state-owned banks.

On campuses, this has affected some mainland students.

Nicholas Xu, 18, a Baptist University communications student from Liaoning province, said he appreciated the protesters’ views on freedom but questioned their means of achieving it.

“I feel kind of afraid, because they’re breaking stores that support China,” he said. “If I speak up, I’m scared I’ll be bullied.”

But Ayra Wong, 18, who came from Shandong to study at the university, said: “The teachers encourage us to share our opinions during lectures. I’ve also made friends with local classmates who are friendly. I don’t feel afraid.”

There was less friction during the Occupy campaign, a sociologist says. Photo: SCMP

There was less friction during the Occupy campaign, a sociologist says. Photo: SCMP

The eight publicly funded universities admitted 12,322 mainland Chinese in the 2018-19 academic year and they accounted for more than 70 per cent of non-local students. The figure for mainland students in Hong Kong has been rising in the past five years.

The latest enrolment figures for 2019-20 have yet to be released, but HKU, Chinese University, Baptist University and Hang Seng University said their mainland student numbers appear more or less the same as in previous years.

Lawmaker Ip noted that mainland students might have received different information about the unrest in their media because Beijing had been portraying the protests as a separatist movement led by rioters.

Ho Lok-sang, an economics professor at Lingnan University, feared that mainland students would be put off from studying in Hong Kong. “If fewer elite students are willing to come, it will not only affect the quantity but also the quality of our students,” he said.

Others remain optimistic. Chung, the sociologist from PolyU, said the friction between local and mainland students was less intense than during the Occupy protests.

He said most students remained rational on campus despite their political leanings.

He said the incident that led to Community College lecturer Chan Wai-keung being relieved of teaching was an isolated event, though he wished the students involved could have stayed calm and resolved their differences.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, who teaches law at City University, said her students had been sticking to rational debate.

Whither freedom in academia?

Even as students or faculty remain calm, the inevitable reality is that universities are microcosms of the wider society. They are at risk of becoming polarised places where learning and the accumulation of new knowledge in an environment free from political pressure may be compromised.

Ho Lok-sang, an economics professor at Lingnan University, said the protests may be having an impact on academic freedom as students were effectively imposing self-censorship at universities.

At universities, people respected freedom of speech, he said.

But because more students side with the protests, “those who oppose will stay low profile”, he said. “They know what to do. And that effectively becomes a form of self-censorship.”

The same pressure applies to professors. Chan Wai-keung, who was moved into a non-teaching role at Hong Kong Community College, spoke of the “chilling effect” his case had on others.

“Other teachers and scholars might now be in fear because they saw what happened to me,” he said. Chan said it was difficult if scholars had to be held accountable for views they held beyond the classroom.

Conversely, for those academics who decide to side with or show empathy towards the protesters, there is the fear of a price to be paid later.

The unrest may push Beijing to tighten its grip, an academic fears. Photo: AFP

The unrest may push Beijing to tighten its grip, an academic fears. Photo: AFP

An academic from Chinese University’s social science department, who preferred not to be named, said he was worried the protests might push Beijing to tighten its grip on Hong Kong’s universities.

He noted how swiftly things have moved for businesses deemed to have crossed Beijing’s red line during the protests. He referred to Hong Kong’s flagship airline, Cathay Pacific, which saw changes in its leadership and sacked pilots and staff who supported the protests.

He also pointed to attacks by pro-establishment supporters on liberal scholars in recent years.

HKU legal scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chinese University sociologist Chan Kin-man became targets after they took part in organising the Occupy protests.

For now, some say the attack by People’s Daily and others on Chinese University chief Tuan is troubling. It leaves them wondering if a shake-up will happen.

The social scientist at Chinese University said morale was low among fellow academics troubled by how challenging their space to teach and create new knowledge had become. Should they throw in the towel and move to another city, he asked.

“It’s all we talk about when we meet up for dinner these days,” he said.

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