Hong Kong targets student unions to tame universities

HONG KONG – Police arrived at Hong Kong University around 3 p.m. wearing black vests marking them as national security agents. They cor...


HONG KONG – Police arrived at Hong Kong University around 3 p.m. wearing black vests marking them as national security agents. They cordoned off the offices of the student union, combed its interior and seized several bins of materials.

A senior police official said they were investigating the union following comments from its leaders who authorities said had glorified the violence. But the underlying message of the mid-July raid was clear: Authorities were cracking down on the city’s universities, and in particular its student activists.

The students have been among the most determined protesters in mass protests in Hong Kong in recent years against the Chinese Communist Party’s tightening grip, becoming a powerful political force. The authorities are now preparing to erode their influence by exerting a national security law imposed by Beijing which gives them extensive powers muzzle dissent.

School administrators have made it more difficult for student unions to collect dues and organize on campus. Union leaders have been suspended for actions linked to pro-democracy protests. The People’s Daily, the party’s first newspaper, earlier this year compared the union of the University of Hong Kong to a “malignant tumor”.

Groups of students – their ranks already diminished by fear and pressure from university administrators – wonder how long they will exist.

“To tell the truth, it feels like we are just waiting to die,” said Yanny Chan, a union leader at Lingnan University, where the administration has said it will stop collecting dues on behalf of of the group.

Outspoken and sometimes combative, unions have long been pillars of Hong Kong civil society. In 2014, student leaders helped launch months of pro-democracy protests in storm a downtown square; they later represented the protesters in the negotiations with the government. When protests erupted again in 2019, unions helped organize a general strike and funded legal aid for arrested protesters.

Trade unions have also been training grounds for prominent opposition figures. The Lingnan union was once headed by Nathan Law, who organized the students for boycott classes in 2014 in a call for the expansion of voting rights. Two years later, at age 23, he was elected to the city’s legislature as the youngest member in its history. He preceded his oath with a protest against Beijing, saying he never be faithful to a “regime which assassinates its own people”. (The government then disqualified and ousted him from the legislature; he now lives in exile in London.)

The notoriety of unions is also due in part to their willingness, like student activists around the world, to defend positions that divide. Unions have sometimes been accused of promoting discrimination against students from mainland China. Some also split with moderate allies on issues such as Hong Kong independence, the idea, anathema to many older activists, has won favor with young Hong Kongers.

“The student government always acts as a radical flank of the pro-democracy movement,” said Johnson Yeung, who led the Chinese University of Hong Kong union in 2012 and 2013. “We don’t always succeed, we don’t always succeed. we don’t always get popularity in our ideas, but we try to create a new space. “

Some of the most violent episodes of the 2019 protests were one-day seats on two university campuses in November, when students threw homemade bombs and set barricades on fire, while police fired tear gas and water cannons.

The roles of unions in these clashes were often unclear. But for Beijing, the fiery clashes reinforced the idea that universities, and by extension their student leaders, were among the city’s most dangerous sources of resistance. The authorities acted quickly to eradicate them.

In January, leaders of the student union at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have been suspended after organizing a memorial for a student who died during the 2019 protests; administrators said they ignored Covid-19 protocols. In March, Chinese university officials accused union leaders of potentially illegal behavior after criticizing the National Security Law. The leaders resigned en masse.

The recent police raid on the University of Hong Kong stems from comments from student leaders about a man who stabbed a policeman then committed suicide on July 1. The students had expressed their “deep sadness” at the assailant’s death and their appreciation for his “sacrifice”, echoing the sympathy some pro-democracy activists had for a man they considered a martyr.

The officials responded with rage. Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, said she was “ashamed” and “furious” at the students. The government security office called the mourning “no different from supporting and encouraging terrorism” and suggested the union may have violated the security law.

Union leaders apologized and resigned. But Ms Lam demanded further action from the university, which said within hours that it no longer recognized the group and then ordered it to leave its offices.

No one was arrested in the July 16 police raid, although police said the investigation was still open.

As pressure on unions increased, students feared that mere membership would make them potential targets. Several universities failed to gather enough candidates report to union offices this year.

Brandon Ng had no plans to join a student union in his freshman year at Chinese university this year, wanting to focus on his studies. But when the union’s cabinet resigned, it felt compelled to continue its legacy, he said. He joined a smaller union representing his dormitory.

He quickly saw how much the space for activism had shrunk. Formerly routine activities, such as distributing leaflets containing political messages, were considered dangerous.

“Now if you try to hand out leaflets, people will say, ‘Why are you so brave? ”, Said Mr. Ng.

In Lingnan, the union still offers advice to students facing legal issues related to the protests. He also continued to take care of more mundane student government tasks, such as distributing food vouchers and surveying students about the university’s response to the pandemic.

But first-year member Kitty Law said the main focus was to show the group still exists.

“There is really nothing we can do,” she said. “We just don’t want to let this union go. “

The plight of the unions has also heightened fears of a a wider crackdown on universities. While student groups were perhaps the most visible sources of dissent on campuses, professors also worried about their ability to publish on politically sensitive topics. The students avoided certain discussions in class.

The government has made it clear that its review will not end with the unions. In its statement on the University of Hong Kong, the Security Bureau said the union’s behavior “clearly reflects the importance” of “supervision of educational institutions” by the government.

Universities are already revising their study programs. On Monday, three schools announced that they will implement national security education in the coming year, through new seminars or revised core curricula. Hong Kong’s education secretary said he expected other schools to follow suit soon.

Of the other five publicly funded universities, only the City University of Hong Kong responded to inquiries about how it would deliver national security education. In a statement, he only said that he “would always respect the principle of” the separation of politics and education “”.

At the University of Hong Kong, another kind of separation is underway, as officials seek to erase all traces of the now ostracized union.

As officers walked through union offices during the raid, notice boards around the campus that once contained union flyers were empty. On the doors of the offices themselves, there were a few backs of peeled stickers.

Within days, school officials had changed the locks. On a glass wall, large self-adhesive letters that once identified a room as the “Union Photocopy Center” read only “Photocopy Center”. The ghost of the word “union” was still visible.

Joy Dong contributed research.



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