When freedoms and politics collide

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2012, 12:00am


The issues

Restrictions on the right to demonstrate

The protesters say they have a democratic right to protest. Under Article 27 of the Basic Law, 'Hong Kong residents ... shall have the freedom of assembly'. But during Li's visit, three student protesters were dragged off by police and locked up for an hour.

Samuel Li Shing-hong, one of those students, claimed he was kept in a very small area at the back of the stairs with guards keeping an eye on him.

The three students wanted to know why they had been locked up, but officers refused to answer.

The students also asked for the door to be opened so they could get some air but were ignored. An hour later, they were released.

'The police have intruded on the core values of a university and the freedom of expression for students. It is inexcusable,' said legislator Cheung Man-kwong, who represents the education sector.

According to one of the review panel's eight members, Johannes Chan Man-mun, dean of the HKU law faculty, the students did not appear to have been intimidated when they were confined. Yet the force used by the police to push them into the stairwell was unjustifiable because the protesters posed no public danger.

Solicitor Lester Huang, the head of the review panel, said police had breached an agreement with HKU that no force should be used in handling protesters. Restriction zones had also been expanded without good reason.

In an interview with the student-run magazine Undergrad, registrar Henry Wai Wing-kun said the level of interference by the police during Li's visit was much higher than for visits by other dignitaries, including Premier Wen Jiabao .

Wai said he was there for the visit of former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1992, the visit by Wen in 2003, ex-US president Bill Clinton's acceptance of an honorary degree in 2008 and this year's visit by Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis. Yet he had never seen such a police presence before, Wai noted.

'We have never seen uniformed police officers entering the campus before,' he said.

Losing sight of academic freedom

The panel concluded that the arrangements during Li's visit unwittingly conveyed the impression that HKU had forsaken its own core values and academic freedom to 'ingratiate itself with the rich and the powerful'. Despite public suspicion, the panel found that mainland officials were not responsible for any of the security measures directed at students and protesters.

The bad judgment was entirely the fault of the university. The university had blundered in other ways as well, such as by placing the vice-premier in the host's seat in a way that slighted former governor David Wilson, another guest-of-honour, who was seated in the second row.

Frank Ching, a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator, thinks that incidents like this put academics in a bad light. He argues that they do not understand and value academic freedom. If that is indeed the case, then academic freedom in Hong Kong may be in danger.

Article 137 of the Basic Law states that 'educational institutions of all kinds may retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom'.

Last August's incident suggests HKU put pandering to the central government well ahead of its students' interests.

The latest Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings rated the University of Hong Kong at 39th globally, up from 42nd in the first such survey last year. The research suggested institutions must defend academic freedom if they were to improve their rankings.

Asked about recent controversies over HKU's centenary celebrations, Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education Rankings, said such affairs could be risky for the development of reputations.

He said Hong Kong and the mainland had to embrace and defend academic freedom to climb further up the list.

'All of the top schools in the world thrive on their academic freedom, meaning they are free from any direct management or control by the government,' he said.

Baty said he believed Hong Kong universities could face a dilemma as they tried to balance closer political integration with the mainland with preserving Western educational philosophies of freedom.

The news

A four-month investigation by a University of Hong Kong review panel concluded that police used 'unjustifiable' and 'unreasonable' force to contain protesters when Vice-Premier Li Keqiang attended a HKU event on August 18 last year.

Li's visit led to a lockdown and takeover of the campus by police. Some student protesters ended up being locked up in a stairwell.

Legislator James To Kun-sun said the HKU report contained the first documented proof since the handover that police had banned the use of loudspeakers in a protest.

The police defended their controversial security measures in the Legislative Council. Describing the visit as 'extraordinary', director of operations Paul Hung Hak-wai said the decision to tighten security came after a police risk assessment. He told Legco it was 'not a matter of an ordinary protest or the rights of protesters'.

Legislator Audrey Eu Yuet-mee criticised police for assuming protesters would cause a security risk.

'The problem was that the vice-premier couldn't even see the protesters,' she said. '[Did] you take into account the rights of protesters when you considered the safety of visitors?'

Pan-democrats said a police report into the incident failed to provide constructive proposals. He called on the authorities to revise and resubmit it. Hung said there was no need to resubmit the report.


July 2011: HKU discusses security with police after being notified of a top mainland official's planned visit.

August 17: Police demand increased security.

August 18: Protesters are barred and locked up, and police clash with media during Li Keqiang's visit.

September 7: HKU forms a seven-member committee to carry out a four-month review of arrangements for the '818 incident'.

October 25: HKU vice-chancellor Tsui Lap-chee notifies the council that he will not renew his contract after it expires in August 2012.

October 29: Leong says the new HKU chief should have 'political sense'.

February 2, 2012: Police release a report citing 'room for improvement' in communications involving major events.

February 3, 2012: HKU report of the '818' incident is releaed.

Voices: What people are saying

'The arrangements by police have touched on the core values of Hong Kong people. They acted like mainland police. The security arrangements moved all protesters away from the sight of the state leader. That undermined people's rights of expression'

James To Kun-sun, lawmaker

'This city is dying. I think quite a lot of people in Hong Kong will agree with me that the University of Hong Kong is dying along with it. Its centenary celebration last August turned out to be a big mess'

Lau Nai-keung, a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development

'I totally agree that the police security measures were over the line this time. In the past, HKU used to be very free. Students behaved themselves and maintained co-operation with the police, and there was no significant evidence showing students would use any form of violence which might disrupt social order'

William Au, liberal studies teacher and HKU alumnus

'We respect press freedom but we also need to strike a balance between it and the security of a visiting VIP'

Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong, Secretary for Security