I never said Hong Kong independence talks abused free speech: HKU chief Peter Mathieson
Outgoing vice-chancellor says earlier joint statement with other university heads targeted more extreme actions such as hate speech
The head of Hong Kong’s oldest university has said that he never referred to discussions about the city’s independence and separation from Chinese rule as an abuse of freedom of expression.
University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson made the remark nine days after he issued a joint statement with the heads of nine other local universities stating they opposed calls for independence.
In an interview with Scottish newspaper The Scotsman, Mathieson, who is leaving HKU for a post at the University of Edinburgh next year, was quoted as saying: “I have at no time said that discussion of Hong Kong independence is an abuse of freedom of expression.”
He was referring to the three-sentence statement issued on September 15 by 10 local universities, including eight publicly-funded ones, 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.”
Mathieson’s clarification came amid high tensions between universities and students over the renewed separatism movement in Hong Kong as schools reopened this month.
The row centred on whether independence-themed materials should be allowed to be put up on campuses, especially in areas managed by student unions, following a number of recent cases where banners and posters have appeared at tertiary institutions.
The management of several universities, including Chinese University and Polytechnic University, had taken down such materials on their premises, drawing the fury of students.
Mathieson told the Scottish daily that the first part of the joint statement was directed at specific instances of “hate speech”, one of which referred to the death of the son of Undersecretary for Education Christine Choi Yuk-lin, and another suggested the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York should be celebrated.
Choi’s recent appointment to the post has drawn strong opposition because of her past connection to a pro-establishment teachers’ union, the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, of which she was a former vice-chairwoman.
In his interview, Mathieson reiterated that school heads had “said nothing about the discussion” of independence, and only repeated their position – that they “do not support Hong Kong independence”.
“Sometimes different political camps here exploit the same words or events to mean different things according to their own aims and wishes,” he added.
Mathieson also said after a university event on Tuesday that because the statement was very short and very brief, people could interpret it in different ways.
Ed Wong Ching-tak, president of the HKU’s student union, slammed the vice-chancellor for twisting his words.
“The statement only had those [three] lines and now he is coming out to say that they are referring to different things,” he said. Wong said it was only natural for people to come to a common conclusion about what the phrases meant.
Wong added that the actions of Chinese University and PolyU – removing materials with the pro-independence theme – further reinforced the perception that the topic was off limits on campuses.
Other university heads who had issued the joint statement with Mathieson either refused to comment or could not be reached.