PolyU students warn of open day protest as talks with university over ‘democracy wall’ on campus in Hong Kong take unruly turn
Students tried to stop management pair from leaving room until both agreed to a closed-door meeting
Students from a Hong Kong university warned they would step up their opposition to the school taking control of their “democracy wall” by protesting at the annual open day on Saturday.
That came after talks broke down between the student union and management of Polytechnic University in Hung Hom on Thursday in the almost two-week-long battle over the wall – a bulletin board on which views can be expressed.
A group of about 10 students, including committee members of the PolyU student union, had stormed management offices demanding an explanation as to why the university covered half of the wall with large sheets of red paper after pro-independence messages were posted on it.
“Without freedom of speech, how dare you still call it a university?” an angry student chanted.
University vice-president Geoffrey Shen Qiping and dean of students Esmond Mok Chi-ming, the only two officials willing to meet the students, shrugged off their calls to explain and reverse the takeover.
Students tried to stop the pair from leaving until both agreed to a closed-door meeting.
During the meeting, Shen said they had a busy schedule and offered to meet the students on Saturday afternoon after the open day. That was quickly turned down by students who wanted answers on the spot. Shen also denied the school’s decision infringed on students’ freedom of speech.
“Be careful on Saturday!” PolyU student union president Lam Wing-hang told Shen and Mok as he left the meeting with fellow representatives.
In a statement late on Thursday, PolyU said it “strongly condemns the unruly behaviour” of several students who tried to stop the two professors.
“The university is sad to note the unruly behaviour of these students and will, according to the established procedures, follow up the incident to ensure the safety of campus,” it said.
At a press conference after the meeting, Lam did not elaborate on their plans for Saturday but stressed that the university must apologise for taking over the democracy wall and promise that such a thing would not happen again. The students and university have refused to make any concessions.
PolyU president Timothy Tong Wai-cheung said earlier that students “arbitrarily changed the [posting] rules” without consulting the university.
The row broke out almost two weeks ago after the union relaxed the rules on posting messages on half of the board following the government’s unprecedented ban on the separatist Hong Kong National Party (HKNP). Some pro-independence messages were posted. After two ultimatums to restore the wall were ignored, PolyU took over that half of the board and covered it with red paper.
About 2,000 students have signed a union petition calling on the university to apologise and remove the paper. Some of the red sheets had been torn down by Thursday evening.
“Now we know why we miss Professor Charles Kao,” a message written on the red paper said, referring to the late former Chinese University president who was known for his tolerance of protests.
The union on Thursday set up a new board near the covered one and some wrote on it, “Shame on PolyU”.
On Monday night, the union issued a 36-hour ultimatum to PolyU to restore the wall, but management did not respond.
Owan Li, a student representative on PolyU’s governing council, said the university had been targeting independence messages to show loyalty to Beijing.
“But what they do is bring unnecessary confrontations on campus,” Li said. “We condemn the school for tarnishing its own reputation, and they will pay for what they did.”
There were no signs of the sides engaging in a new round of talks, but the students said they were not to blame as the school had shown little response to their demands.
“We have already been very tolerant because we still want our democracy wall here,” union president Lam said. “But our concessions have resulted in the school taking more aggressive steps to press on our freedom of expression.”
Separately, several pro-independence banners and messages supporting the HKNP earlier posted on the “democracy wall” at the University of Hong Kong were found to have been removed on Tuesday. Preliminary findings showed no students were involved and the messages were removed by outsiders, union president Davin Kenneth Wong said.
The union said it reserved the right to take further action and stressed only its members had the right to remove a post.
“The democracy wall is a platform on which HKU students can enjoy their freedom of speech,” the union wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday. “Political censorship or any act that undermines others’ freedom of speech are thoroughly disallowed.”