Amid a city-wide crackdown on all forms of peaceful dissent, students at Hong Kong’s universities are fighting a rearguard action over freedom of speech after the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) withdrew recognition for the student union.
Thousands of staff, students, and alumni signed an online petition on Friday supporting the union, Syzygia, following the announcement, with the petition garnering nearly 6,000 signatures by close of business on Friday.
“We are deeply regretful and distressed to know that the university renounces its students,” the union said in a statement. “It is very unfortunate that the integrity and foundation of humanities rooted in CUHK have been destroyed by the University itself.”
“We … are now launching a petition. We call for support from students, graduates and staff in CUHK to support us … to show objection against CUHK from depriving the rights of the Student Union because of political reasons,” it said.
CUHK announced late on Thursday that it would stop allowing the union to use university facilities, and staff, accusing it of failing to clarify “potentially unlawful statements and false allegations.”
Syzygia accused the university of “kowtowing to the regime,” in a reference to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
A separate signature campaign calling on CUHK vice-chancellor Rocky Tuan to reverse the university’s decision has also been signed by more than 3,000 alumni.
The decision by the university came just one day after Syzygia elected a new cabinet on Wednesday amid high turnout.
It has now been warned that it must suspend the collection of dues from members, as it has no legal status.
Fears of a backlash against student unions, which have played prominent roles in mass pro-democracy movements in 2019 and 2014, had already led unions in other universities not to elect key officials.
The decision by CUHK suggests that more universities will cut ties with student unions.
Academic freedom, student politics under threat
Ivan Choy, a former CUHK student union president and currently a lecturer in politics at the same university, told RFA that academic freedom and student politics are now under threat in Hong Kong.
“I think if you have been paying attention to what a lot of people are saying in recent days, you will realize that universities are under huge pressure right now,” Choy told RFA.
“This has been going on for a while, but it was generally treated until now as an internal matter requiring mutual understanding and mutual accommodation,” he said.
“Now I think things have gotten way more complicated.”
He said the student unions could soon be regarded as a matter for the newly formed national security police, who are charged with implementing a draconian national security law imposed by the CCP on Hong Kong from July 1, 2020.
While CUHK said Syzygia should set itself up as a separate entity, former student union leader Gary Poon said there is scant room for that to happen under current Hong Kong law.
“I have been involved in discussions about starting an independent union, but I found it can only be done if the law is amended by the Legislative Council (LegCo),” Poon told RFA.
“It can’t be regulated under the Societies Ordinance because it was established under a different law,” he said.
He said relations between university management and student unions had often been conflicted, but had largely been maintained based on custom and unwritten rules.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) said it would cancel a planned exhibit of press photography for “safety and security” reasons, citing coronavirus concerns.
But the exhibit had included a number of prize-winning photos of the 2019 protest movement, a topic regarded as subversive under the national security law.
Reported by Cheng Yut-yiu and Chan Yun Nam for RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.