Hong Kong student unions unite against university leaders’ claims of ‘abuse’ of free speech
Student groups from 12 institutions urge school leaders to ‘stop misleading public’ as row over pro-independence posters continues
The student unions of 12 Hong Kong universities have issued a unified response to a joint statement from 10 university heads condemning “recent abuses” of freedom of expression, as the row over pro-independence materials on campuses continues into its third week since the beginning of the school year.
In a four-sentence statement released on Saturday night, the unions made a point-by-point rebuttal of the Friday declaration by the university vice-chancellors.
Beginning with the same phrase, “we treasure the freedom of expression”, the students called it “a right that we are born with”.
While the vice-chancellors wrote that such freedom comes with responsibilities, and that the universities did not support Hong Kong independence because it contravened the Basic Law, the unions replied that teachers and students still enjoyed the freedom of speech to discuss the issue, and that such discussion was protected under Article 27 of the city’s mini-constitution.
Article 1 of the Basic Law says Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China. Article 27 says Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication.
The student unions concluded by urging the universities to stop misleading the public.
Aside from the statement from the university leaders, Chinese University vice-chancellor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu had given an ultimatum on Friday for the CUHK student union to remove banners and posters advocating Hong Kong independence, or the university management would take them down.
A banner and a number of such posters had appeared on the CUHK campus at the start of the academic year, inviting heated debates over whether discussion of the city’s separation from the mainland should be allowed and whether such materials were permitted for public display.
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The Friday statement came from leaders of the city’s eight public universities plus Open University and Shue Yan University. The rebuttal came from the student unions of nine of these 10 schools – excluding Polytechnic University – as well as Hang Seng Management College, Chu Hai College of Higher Education and the Technological and Higher Education Institute.
These 12 student unions, plus that of the Academy for Performing Arts, had issued an earlier statement – directed at Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor – last Sunday, also citing Article 27.
On Friday, mentioning the independence banner at CUHK and a poster on another campus taunting the city’s No 2 education official over the tragic death of her son, Lam said the “advocacy of fallacies” could not be excused by academic freedom and university autonomy.
In response, the 13 student unions condemned Lam’s speech as “an explicit effort to limit our freedom of expression through exerting pressure on university authorities to punish those whose speech may have intimidated the people in power”.
Such collective actions – two in the space of a week – have rarely been seen since the disintegration of the Hong Kong Federation of Students in early 2015. Dissatisfied with the federation’s performance during the pro-democracy umbrella movement in 2014, four student unions – accounting for half of its members – voted to leave the league.