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HKU council controversy

Unruly Hong Kong student protesters have crossed the line, abused the public’s trust and must be watched carefully

John Chan says the increasingly violent protests by University of Hong Kong students are shameful and should not be tolerated by society

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 February, 2016, 10:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 February, 2016, 10:01am

Three years ago, I attended the Hong Kong University Students’ Union centenary dinner on campus. The dinner, attended by many notable alumni, including former Legislative Council president Andrew Wong Wang-fat, was disturbed by a demonstration by a group of 20 or so HKU students and young alumni. They were protesting against the student union president’s handling of a case involving a union employee, who they claimed had been unfairly dismissed.

READ MORE: University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor condemns ‘mob rule’ by students, threatens to hand videos to police

During the entire evening, the protesting students and alumni surrounded the head table where the president of the Students’ Union was seated, chanting slogans and refusing to leave. They disturbed not only the dinner proceedings, but also the functions held after the dinner.

After the incident, I wrote an article criticising the behaviour of the demonstrating students and alumni. I also mentioned similar disturbances at other events by protesters whose sole purpose was to attack specific figures who they had taken a dislike to, and who happened to be attending the events.

In most cases, the event itself had nothing to do with the issue they were protesting about.

Such irritating disturbances have escalated over the past three years

One young alumni who took part in the demonstration at the centenary dinner wrote back and, without denying any wrongdoing, asked whether I was aware of their anger over the matter.

According to these young people’s weird logic, it seems that they were entitled to vent their anger and frustration over a particular issue at any event – causing a disturbance to hundreds of innocent guests in the process – just because the person in question was attending.

Such irritating disturbances have escalated over the past three years, so that now the demonstrators have resorted to getting into the venues by force if necessary.

It has now become common for unruly protesters to insult their targeted figures using abusive language and even seek to physically attack them.

When faced with criticism of their violent acts, another standard defence has been put forward. Take the case of the siege and false imprisonment by students of HKU council members following their meeting in July 2015. The students justified their acts by claiming they were fighting against “institutional violence”, that is, injustice within an institution or the system itself.

A more serious incident occurred after the HKU council’s meeting last month, when council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson and other council members were trapped for hours by hundreds of students demanding a review of the governing body’s structure. Mathieson, who condemned the siege as “mob rule”, said he felt his life was at risk. Council member Dr Patrick Poon Sun-cheong was seized by demonstrators as he tried to leave the venue. In the process, his jacket was torn as he struggled to make his way out of the siege. No civilised person would accept such acts.

The students’ behaviour was certainly shocking – but what was worse was the shameless remarks by student leaders in a statement afterwards, in which they described their actions as reasonable and restrained.

READ MORE: Protesting students at University of Hong Kong reveal their mob mentality

In 2015, student leaders at least had the decency not to deny the violent nature of their attacks, saying it was an appropriate response to the “institutional violence”.

Their latest statement, however, appears to be telling the public that they have done nothing wrong. This is irresponsible and shameless, and all right-thinking citizens should condemn it. After the 2015 siege, former Bar Association chairman Paul Shieh Wing-tai, who has been supportive of the students’ action, warned them of the dangers of using violence to fight “institutional violence”.

It is lamentable that this small group of unruly student leaders have failed to reflect on their wrongdoings. Worse, they are now deliberately distorting the facts, or as the Chinese idiom goes, “pointing to a deer and calling it a horse”. They have abused the good wishes and trust of a tolerant public. From now on, every unruly and irresponsible act of these young student leaders must be closely examined.

John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party