The row over signs on university campuses advocating independence for Hong Kong took a turn for the worse on Friday, with the head of Chinese University giving an ultimatum to the student union to take them down and defiant students digging in for a showdown. At the same time, the heads of the city’s 10 universities issued a joint statement to decry “abuses” of freedom of speech on campus, but stopped short of condemning independence advocacy. Chinese University president Joseph Sung Jao-yiu made it clear that the institution was “against the notion” of Hong Kong splitting from China and such discussions were not welcome on campus. “Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of the university. That is not to say that the exercise of this freedom should be boundless,” he said. “We do not want our campus turned into a place for different political groups to spread their propaganda.” Sung urged the student union to remove the materials in question or face having the university management take them down. Mainland Chinese student in Hong Kong apologises for independence poster comments He did not specify if he was referring to the posters and banners displayed on the university’s “democracy wall” of notice boards, which has become a hotbed of pro- and anti-independence signs, as well as face-to-face rows over the matter . Sung’s tough stance immediately set him on a collision course with the student union, whose members began camping out near the posters overnight to stop anyone taking them down. They said they were in for the long haul. “If the school tries to remove the banners by force, we will spare no effort to protect students’ right of expression,” union president Justin Au Tsz-ho said. “We strongly condemn the university for refusing to communicate with students. Sung is conducting self-censorship in the school, reducing himself to a political pawn.” Sung’s stance contrasted with that of Lingnan University’s president, who has said he is willing to allow discussion of independence on campus as long as there is no advocacy. Ban advocacy of Hong Kong independence, Beijing mouthpiece says amid banner row Such conflicting viewpoints among the heads of the city’s 10 universities appeared to be the reason for their carefully worded and ambiguous joint statement, which read: “We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities. All universities undersigned agree that we do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law.” They did not specify whether the “abuses” could also refer to messages displayed a week ago on the Education University campus, taunting a top education official over the suicide of her eldest son. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor led citywide condemnation of the attack, calling it “callous” and “cold-blooded”. Sung also said on Friday that the university would investigate students making “malicious personal attacks against others in abusive language”. He did not specify if he was referring to confrontations between Hong Kong students and their mainland counterparts who have opposed pro-independence posters. On September 7, former student union president Ernie Chow Shue-fung was filmed using the derogatory word “Cheena” for “China” in an argument with mainland students in front of the democracy wall. Chow insisted the mainlanders also hurled insults, but refused to comment on Sung’s remarks on Friday. Clarify whether independence banners are criminal offence, Hong Kong justice chief urged Separately, youth commissioner Lau Ming-wai called on the government not to interfere in local university matters, but to let campus management decide how to handle the issue. On a radio programme, Lau, chairman of the Commission on Youth, labelled the conduct of those advocating independence “very naive”. He said he was opposed to pasting independence-related materials on campuses and promoting the idea, but was open-minded about others expressing their views as long as they did not break the law. “If you support [independence] and express it rationally without provoking others, I’m obliged to allow you to express your views,” he said, adding that inclusiveness was lacking in today’s society.