Baptist University students’ new suspensions called a warning to those opposing school policies
Former student union president Lau Tsz-kei barred for a semester, while Chinese medicine student Andrew Chan Lok-hang barred eight days
Two Hong Kong Baptist University students on Monday warned of a chilling effect on the right to express dissent as they were disciplined for a second time over their role in a rowdy protest against a Mandarin language graduation requirement.
The university barred former student union president Lau Tsz-Kei, 20, for one semester, and Chinese medicine student Andrew Chan Lok-hang, 22, for eight days.
Lau, a freshman, had yet to learn when his punishment would take effect, while it was determined that Chan, a fifth-year student, had already served his suspension.
The two slammed the university for its “unjust” findings and vowed to appeal, with Chan saying he would apply for a judicial review if necessary.
They were among about 30 students who stormed the university’s language centre in January, demanding management scrap the Mandarin requirement and calling for greater transparency in an exemption test.
All local undergraduates at Baptist University, which has a student body of about 12,000, must pass a Mandarin module to graduate – an unpopular requirement that students have campaigned against for years.
Lau was caught swearing on camera, while Chan raised his voice. No student resorted to physical violence.
Baptist University initially suspended Lau and Chan, starting on January 24, saying they posed a danger to the community. Eight days later, as criticism mounted, the university lifted the suspensions after the two apologised to language centre staff in person.
But on Monday, Lau told reporters he received a letter last Thursday telling him the university’s panel on student disciplinary cases had ruled he would be suspended from study for one semester and was required to send an apology letter or letters to language centre staff no later than April 12.
He was also required to make an appointment with the university counsellor.
Chan received a suspension of study for eight days as well as 40 hours of community service. He was also required to send an apology letter or letters by the same deadline.
The pair expressed shock and disappointment over the findings, questioning whether their punishment was meant to warn students who opposed school policies. They worried it might set a harmful precedent.
“The university needs to have freedom of expression, and students need to be able to make their voices heard,” Lau said.
Chan, whose internship at a Guangzhou hospital was suspended in January after he received more than 100 death threats, questioned whether his new punishment of eight days was intended to justify university president Roland Chin Tai-hong’s decision to immediately ban him and Lau for that length of time before the investigation was completed.
The Chinese medicine student claimed that two other students who were investigated received punishments of community service and were made to write apology letters, but they did not wish to reveal more details.
Chan said the panel had concluded his behaviour violated the university’s rules of conduct regarding obstruction or disruption of learning, teaching, research or administration, and indecent behaviour.
It found Lau guilty of the same violations, plus verbal assault or defamation or other forms of harassment towards university staff.
The panel, Chan continued, concluded he and Lau had stayed at the language centre for eight hours despite repeated requests to leave. They had also made threatening or intimidating gestures towards staff.
“We were not asked whether we did not care about the request to leave,” he countered, adding that two staff members had told them they could stay.
Chan and Lau said the university had come under pressure from external parties, such as mainland Chinese media, to mete out punishment. Lau claimed senior management had told him they needed to do something with outsiders watching.
A university spokesman refused to disclose the disciplinary findings, citing the students’ privacy.
“The university always respects students’ right to voice their opinions in a peaceful and rational manner,” the spokesman added.
Professional Teachers’ Union president Fung Wai-wah said the students had violated regulations but he found the punishment excessive.
“Suspension is very serious, especially one semester for Lau, which would affect his graduation,” Fung said, adding that a warning or record of their offence would have sufficed.