National security law: at least 5 out of 8 Hong Kong universities may have no elected student unions amid low participation rate over arrest fears

Chan Ho-him
·5-min read

At least five out of eight Hong Kong public universities could be left without a popularly elected student union as arrests of leaders over the past year over politically sensitive events have deterred some from joining such bodies.

The handful of students still keen on running for union positions said they felt the national security law was unclear, and they ran the risk of breaching the legislation imposed last June.

Hong Kong’s student unions are known to be vocal on social and political issues, and have played an active role in movements such as the 2019 anti-government protests.

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But five varsities – Baptist University, City University, Education University, Lingnan University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) – do not have enough students forming a body, or so-called cabinets, to run in this year’s union elections.

A cabinet comprises a group of students running for different posts, such as president, external or internal vice-presidents and secretary.

Student union leaders from Hong Kong’s universities at a press conference in 2019, at the height of the social unrest. Photo: Winson Wong
Student union leaders from Hong Kong’s universities at a press conference in 2019, at the height of the social unrest. Photo: Winson Wong

Only Chinese University (CUHK) and Polytechnic University (PolyU) have achieved the required minimum – which differs between schools – for one cabinet each, while a single individual is standing for the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) student union executive committee election.

Students who spoke to the Post attributed the lacklustre turnouts to concerns over a perceived erosion in freedom of expression, after management at various campuses either banned or cautioned against politically sensitive events last year which later led to the discipline or arrest of student leaders.

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Student leaders said they faced more difficulties in organising protest-related activities on campus, while union positions had become hot seats that were less attractive to peers.

Last month, HKUST’s student union president and vice-president were suspended after they held a memorial last May amid the Covid-19 pandemic for student Alex Chow Tsz-lok who died after a car park fall near a protest in 2019.

They were accused of ignoring management’s warning on health risks and refusing to remove protest-related materials on campus notice boards.

Protesters set up roadblocks outside Baptist University in 2019. Student unions in Hong Kong’s universities were widely tied to the protest movement that year. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Protesters set up roadblocks outside Baptist University in 2019. Student unions in Hong Kong’s universities were widely tied to the protest movement that year. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

In the same month, CUHK student union provisional president Owen Au Cheuk-hei was arrested along with four students for their suspected involvement in an incident in which a black-clad group threw an unknown powder at security guards on campus.

In November, PolyU’s student union was told by management to call off a screening of a television documentary on the 13-day police siege of the school during the 2019 social unrest.

Also in November, CUHK threatened to cancel a photo exhibition commemorating the anniversary of protesters’ occupation of the campus over legal concerns centred on a poster bearing a protest slogan deemed to be separatist.

In the election declaration by the sole cabinet running for CUHK’s student union race this year, the 12 members said they remained defiant despite the management’s “suppression”, and vowed to safeguard what they saw as the remaining freedom and autonomy of holding movements on campus.

Their election platform also lashed out at the national security law, saying it was “serving the regime’s purpose to suppress dissents and an attempt to silence Hongkongers”, while calling the city’s rule of law “dead” and a “legal weapon of the authoritarian regime”.

“Our whole cabinet is prepared to be arrested. And if university management decides to suppress us with disciplinary measures such as handing us demerits, suspending us or even expelling us, it would be within our expectations,” external vice-president Terence Law declared on campus radio last week.

Students protest and vandalise campus walls at HKUST in 2019. Photo: Dickson Lee
Students protest and vandalise campus walls at HKUST in 2019. Photo: Dickson Lee

PolyU’s 18-strong team also stressed in its platform that it would continue to be vocal and actively respond to social affairs.

Similarly, president hopeful Alan Wu Wai-kuen said his whole cabinet was prepared to face arrests. He added that legal thresholds had been unclear under the national security law, which targets acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

“People often talk about [not crossing] the red lines under the law, but it is still unclear where the red lines actually are. In fact, the relevant thresholds may even be raised by [authorities] whenever they want to,” Wu told the Post on Monday.

But he stressed the cabinet would not self-censor, raising the example of one of its slogans in their manifesto “Revolution is justified; liberation is legitimate”, despite it being similar to 2019’s clarion call for protesters – “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” – which was deemed by police as a possible breach of the security law.

At the city’s oldest university HKU, only one student is running for the seat of the union’s general secretary, rendering a by-election to fill up the remaining 13 seats under school regulations, according to incumbent student union president Edy Jeh Tsz-lam.

Last year, student unions at CUHK, CityU, Lingnan University, Baptist University and Education University were also left vacated due to various reasons, with basic student affairs operations maintained only by provisional committees.

Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said last November that university management should tighten their supervision over student activities and spell out clearer rules when allowing student unions to organise events on campus.

In replies to the Post, HKUST and PolyU said there were no changes in their policies on student activities on campus, although a PolyU spokeswoman added that management had the right to take back facilities over any perceived violations.

A CUHK spokeswoman stressed that no unlawful activity would be allowed on campus at all times, while CityU said the university had established guidelines and policies for event management which should be followed by all members.

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