Hong Kong universities tell students to remove independence banners, as top China diplomat says city’s young need enhanced education on mainland culture
Pro-independence slogans seen on University of Hong Kong and Polytechnic University campuses two days after Hong Kong National Party was banned on national security grounds
Banners in support of Hong Kong independence were on display on two university campuses two days after a separatist party was outlawed on national security grounds, even as the management urged the student unions concerned on Thursday night to remove them or take appropriate action.
As the controversy intensified, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, told a visiting delegation of Hong Kong professionals in the capital that solving youth problems was key to tackling the issue of independence.
Yang, a member of Beijing’s coordination group in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, stressed the need to better educate the city’s youth on Chinese culture, as he reiterated the central government’s zero-tolerance policy against independence advocacy.
“He [Yang] called on us to help youngsters achieve upward social mobility, as well as with housing, employment and livelihood issues,” Thomas Lee Kang-bor, the head of the delegation, said.
On Monday, the government gazetted an unprecedented ban on the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) in the name of protecting national security. Associating with the party – including becoming a member, donating to it or taking part in its activities – could lead to imprisonment for up to three years.
The legal implications for members of the public and news organisations have yet to be clarified, but legal experts said expressing support for the party without taking concrete action such as trying to join would not be considered unlawful.
On Wednesday, 14 banners made with sheets of A4 paper appeared on the University of Hong Kong’s outdoor bulletin board dubbed the “democracy wall”, sporting the messages “I support the Hong Kong National Party” and “I support Hong Kong independence” in both Chinese and English.
Some of the Chinese-language banners were reportedly removed by a man in a suit on Wednesday afternoon. Both the university’s management and the student union, which is in charge of the wall, said they were not behind the removal.
On Thursday morning, the Post found new pro-independence banners and posters had been put up on the wall, with one saying “removing [the banners] is a counter-revolutionary crime”.
At Polytechnic University, a small banner made with four memo stickers bearing the Chinese characters for “Hong Kong independence” appeared on the democracy wall. By Thursday morning, the characters for “independence” had been defaced. A handwritten line was added next to the banner stating: “It originally said ‘Hong Kong independence’.”
It was unclear when the small banner was put up. Blank stickers were being provided by the university’s student union, which decided to turn half of the democracy wall into a “Lennon wall” for two weeks starting on Monday, when the HKNP ban was announced.
An earlier “Lennon wall” – named for its similarity to a monument in the Czech Republic honouring the late Beatles singer – was created at the Admiralty site of the Occupy protests of 2014. Protesters plastered it with colourful notes in support of the democracy movement.
The union, which said it wanted to “provide a little freedom in a Hong Kong without free speech”, also reduced the usual posting rules to just three: no commercials; student numbers and posting dates must be provided; and the union’s right to make the final decision. All posters and banners would be kept for no more than two weeks.
The university gave the student union a 24-hour deadline on Wednesday to take down the Lennon wall and restore the original posting rules by 1.30pm on Thursday or lose the right to use it.
“Before the university states its reasons clearly and publicly, the student union will not fulfil this request,” the union vowed in a statement.
At 12.35pm on Thursday, about an hour before the deadline, a statement from PolyU’s dean of students, Esmond Mok Chi-ming, was put up on the democracy wall.
The statement said the wall was part of the campus administrated by the university, and the student union had been delegated to manage the wall according to rules agreed on by both parties.
“The student union halved the democracy wall and applied new management rules without seeking consent from the university. This is completely against the original arrangement,” Mok said.
Hours past the 1.30pm deadline on Thursday, no members of university management were seen near the wall.
Student union president Lam Wing-hang, speaking in front of the wall through an amplifier, said the new arrangements would remain in place until at least October 8 as planned. Dozens of students gathered to listen to his speech.
Lam criticised the request to remove the Lennon wall as being the management’s latest move to “suffocate” free speech by students.
“The old posting rules were often abused by the management,” he said. “Postings with photographs of the university executives were challenged as offensive. And they installed a surveillance camera to monitor the wall around the clock.”
In response, a PolyU spokeswoman on Thursday night said they had decided to extend the deadline for the student union to restore the democracy wall to 6pm on Friday.
“The university deeply regrets that the student union failed to restore the democracy wall as requested,” the spokeswoman said. “Considering that they might need more time, the university has decided to extend the deadline.”
A spokeswoman for HKU also said on Thursday night that senior management was “concerned” about the postings on the democracy wall and had asked the student union to take “appropriate action”.
“The university’s senior management is opposed to Hong Kong independence. While it fully respects academic freedom, it does not wish the campus to be turned into a platform for political advocacy, nor does it wish for it to become politically divided,” the spokeswoman said.
Both HKU legal scholar Eric Cheung Tat-ming and criminal lawyer Eric Kwok Tung-ming said posting banners in support of the HKNP was not illegal, as students were exercising freedom of speech.
“The posting of slogans is to express one’s views – it does not amount to giving aid [to the HKNP]," Cheung said.
Kwok said: “It would have to involve more than just posting to be caught under the Societies Ordinance [for giving aid to an unlawful society].
“One example includes calling for people to raise funds for the HKNP – that would be a clear case of assisting an unlawful society. Just expressing support for an unlawful society would not be illegal.”
Cheung said some Beijing officials had been “discussing Hong Kong affairs with a mainland mindset”, but such incidents should be handled in accordance with local laws.
Computer science undergraduate Marco Lai, 19, said the university’s request was not reasonable.
“I personally don’t agree with Hong Kong independence, but people should have the right to express their minds,” he said.
Lai added that he was worried the HKNP ban would make the posting of pro-independence banners a crime, and that more prohibitive “red lines” might be drawn in the future.
Li Na, a mainland postgraduate student in environmental sciences, said she did not know much about the ban or the meaning of the Lennon wall.
“But it will be a pity if the university forcibly removes the posts, because these are rarely allowed on the mainland,” Li said. “I think Hong Kong students have a stronger sense of defending their rights and freedoms.”
Yany Sze, a Year Three nursing student, said if he were a student leader, he too would have told the university only after the changes were made.
“There is no way for the management to grant a green light beforehand, and I think the student union has the right to make those changes because they were elected by students,” he said.
Sze put an enlarged QR code up on the Lennon wall shortly before 1.30pm on Thursday.
“It links to a video teaching you to fold a small umbrella with a piece of yellow paper,” he said. “I hope people can be reminded what they once wished for four years ago [during the civil disobedience movement].”
Additional reporting by Alvin Lum and Kimmy Chung