Explain this: the rise of student unions in Hong Kong – how did they come to hold such sway?

The groups have played a key role in the city’s political development, but some youngsters are questioning whether their leaders really speak for them

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 September, 2017, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 September, 2017, 8:28pm

From showing solidarity with their counterparts in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, to participating in the more recent Occupy and independence movements, university students in Hong Kong have played a key role in the city’s political development.

The leaders of student unions have often been seen as the voice of Hong Kong’s youth. Many have come from humble beginnings but have grown to become major players in the political scene. But some youngsters are now asking if their leaders are truly representative of the student population.

How did student unions come to be such a major force?

There are more than a dozen student unions at universities and other tertiary institutions in Hong Kong. The union at the University of Hong Kong has the longest history among the city’s eight publicly funded institutions.

Established in 1912, a year after HKU was founded, the union was initially named the Hong Kong University Union, and the city’s colonial governor held the post of president. In 1945, after the second world war ended, it was reorganised and renamed the Hong Kong University Students’ Society. In 1949 it was registered as an independent student organisation.

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Today the union consists only of students and is led by a democratically elected president. With the establishment of more tertiary institutions in the last few decades, the number of student unions has steadily increased. All eight public universities now have one.

In 1958, four unions joined forces to form the Hong Kong Federation of Students. The federation’s member unions are currently those from Chinese University, Lingnan University, the University of Science and Technology and Shue Yan University. Four other unions quit the grouping following dissatisfaction with its handling of the pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014, of which students were a driving force in the campaign for “genuine universal suffrage”.

What influence have they had on politics?

Besides their focus on student welfare, student unions have in recent decades been active in politics. During the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, some members of the federation took part in demonstrations and hunger strikes in the capital.

In 2014, the federation was a major force in the Occupy movement, with members including Alex Chow Yong-kang of HKU and Nathan Law Kwun-chung of Lingnan University storming the Hong Kong government’s headquarters two days before sit-ins closed down large parts of the city for 79 days. The pair were even part of five students who held talks with government officials, including the city’s current leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who was then chief secretary.

Why have the unions become so sensitive about freedom of speech?

Student unions stepped up their political activism in 2015 with a campaign to protect the autonomy of learning institutions from encroachment by the government, a move sparked by controversy over a key managerial appointment at HKU. The university’s governing council rejected a recommendation, from a committee charged with searching for candidates, that law professor Johannes Chan Man-mun fill the post of pro-vice-chancellor in charge of academic staffing and resources. The knock-back deviated from common practice at the university, and students viewed it as punishment for Chan’s close ties to colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a leader of the Occupy movement.

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Coupled with the appointment of Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a close ally of Hong Kong’s then leader Leung Chun-ying, as chairman of the council, the episode prompted hundreds of students to besiege a council meeting in protest. Led by then union president Billy Fung Jing-en, they pressed for an immediate review of the school’s governance structure and a face-to-face conversation with Li.

The recent appearance of banners and posters on campuses advocating Hong Kong breaking away from Chinese rule has caused clashes between university officials and student unions over freedom of speech. At Chinese University a six-hour stand-off involving members of four unions saw students demand dialogue with university officials. Seven unions joined forces to condemn the removal of independence materials by campus authorities as a “serious erosion” of academic freedom. The Chinese University episode ended with a truce between management and the union, whereby the former would not take such materials down without talking to students.

But have student unions actually been able to effect meaningful change?

While students have in recent years been more aggressive with their demands, the results of their actions remain to be seen. With the exception of Chinese University, all public institutions have only one undergraduate representative on their governing council. Many say student voices are not properly considered, with only a single undergraduate member among more than 20 making up the councils. At Chinese University there are no students on the body.

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And do the unions really represent students?

The independence controversy has brought about tensions between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students, calling into question whether the unions are speaking only for a minority. Posters by mainland students at Chinese University declaring: “Sorry, we refuse to be represented” were seen plastered on the school’s “democracy wall”, a space given over to students to express their views. Some mainland students registered their dissatisfaction with the union, which manages the wall.

Scattered quarrels broke out last week when local students tried to stop several mainlanders putting up such posters on top of those advocating independence. Union leader Au Tsz-ho insisted that rules stated posters covering existing ones should be removed.

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Former Chinese University student union president Ernie Chow Shue-fung was filmed at the site using the derogatory word “Cheena” to refer to China in an argument with mainlanders. But Chow said the mainlanders had also hurled insults.

Has there been any backlash against the unions?

Despite gaining much attention, with some lauded for their passion, some union leaders have found themselves in hot water even after stepping down. Despite serving as a member of Hong Kong’s legislature for almost a year, Nathan Law was sent to prison last month over his role in storming the government complex three years earlier. Alex Chow was also imprisoned over the same incident.

Billy Fung was convicted of one count of disorderly conduct in a public place for his role in the HKU siege, and pleaded guilty to criminal damage and attempted forcible entry. He will be sentenced on September 21.