Two of Hong Kong’s top officials cautioned youngsters against independence talk on university campuses as classes resumed on Monday, saying that while the city enjoyed freedom of speech, debate about separatist ideas was pointless.
But at Chinese University, which saw clashes last year amid renewed calls for Hong Kong to break away from China, student leaders at an event to herald the start of a new academic year insisted they had a right to talk about sovereignty over the city.
Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, who toured a primary school in the morning, said independence was not feasible and the discussion was therefore unnecessary. Schools should “follow up” if students insisted on discussing the topic, he said, without specifying what action teachers should take.
“There is no need to discuss or reaffirm one’s views on Hong Kong independence at university inauguration ceremonies,” Yeung said. “It is not an appropriate occasion.”
Separately, the city’s No 2 official Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said: “Hong Kong is a place with freedom of speech, but there is absolutely no space for Hong Kong independence.”
Their comments came after Cheung Yam, the president of Education University’s student union provisional executive council, said during the institution’s inauguration ceremony last Wednesday that “Hong Kong independence is the only way to build a place that is truly based on the interests of Hongkongers”.
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An Education University spokeswoman said it “deeply regrets” and “condemns” the council’s decision to advocate independence.
At Chinese University on Monday, student union president Au Cheuk-hei decried how some students were facing “school disciplinary action for participating in student movements and fights on campuses for values they believed in”.
He was speaking after the institution’s leader, Rocky Tuan Sung-chi.
Au said: “Youths have been threatened with years of jail time for taking to the streets in the name of justice and fighting for democracy and independence for [a Hong Kong] ‘ethnic group’.”
He was referring to incidents last September when pro-independence banners and posters appeared on the campus, leading to a showdown between local and mainland students, and between students and management.
The identities of those responsible for posting the materials were unclear, and despite the university’s call to take them down, the student union vowed to keep the banners and posters to protect free speech. Similar materials appeared on other campuses in the following days.
Several weeks later, former Chinese University president Joseph Sung Jao-yiu led nine other tertiary institutions in releasing a joint statement saying they did not support Hong Kong independence, and condemning abuses of freedom of expression.
In December, Yeung made clear there was a “zero tolerance” policy towards independence advocacy on or around campuses, and if students were harassed by those distributing separatist propaganda, schools could seek help from the education authority or police.
Anthony Suen Ho-yin, acting student union president at New Asia College, one of Chinese University’s nine colleges, said Hong Kong independence should not be a “forbidden” phrase as it harmed no one.
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The university’s student union complained that security guards had stopped its representatives from putting up a banner at Cultural Square, where a large “Hong Kong independence” banner appeared last year. The students eventually successfully erected the banner.
This year’s banner contained a Chinese phrase, including a Hong Kong slang word, asking Tuan to take students seriously, as Au claimed the president had only spent 45 minutes with the current union representatives since taking office in January.
After Monday’s ceremony, Tuan said he met students on a monthly basis. The university did not support independence for the city, he stated, but it was committed to free speech and academic freedom, though the former must be enjoyed in a way that is “peaceful, rational, mutually respectful and accepting of others’ opinions”.