The police national security unit will investigate a student protest at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Thursday in which separatist slogans were chanted, prompting the management to call in law enforcement.
Condemning actions by the protesters, police said they would attach high importance to the case. The Education Bureau also weighed in, saying it supported the university’s decision to call police.
More than 100 people heeded online calls to protest at the university’s Sha Tin site against the management’s decision last week to move graduation ceremonies online, which they said deprived students of the opportunity to express their views. The ceremonies had become annual occasions for graduates to demonstrate their political stance.
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The demonstrators on Thursday were heard calling for Hong Kong independence and liberation, using phrases stemming from last year’s anti-government protests which are now considered an offence under the Beijing-decreed national security legislation imposed on the city in June.
Many also expressed support for the 12 Hong Kong fugitives detained in Shenzhen after being caught in August by mainland China’s coastguard while fleeing to Taiwan in a speedboat.
Dozens of graduates gathered soon after midday near the campus MTR station for the protest. Most of them were dressed in graduation gowns, while some wore black masks or held up balloons of the same colour, which is associated with last year’s anti-government movement.
The slogan, which was also displayed on banners at Thursday’s demonstration, has been deemed illegal under the national security law, which targets acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. The maximum sentence for breaking the legislation’s most serious offences is life imprisonment.
In a press release issued two days after the national security law took effect on June 30, the government said that particular slogan had connotations of Hong Kong independence or subverting state power.
Cries of “Hong Kong independence, the only way out” and “Self-strengthening of the nation, independence for Hong Kong” were also reported. The protesters could be heard shouting out the names of the fugitives, all 12 of whom are wanted in Hong Kong in connection with last year’s social unrest.
Police said on Thursday night that the unauthorised assembly could have been in violation of the city’s Public Order Ordinance, while the separatist slogans and banners could breach the national security law.
The Education Bureau also said it was possible the separatist messages were in breach of the national security legislation, as a spokesman condemned the demonstration and expressed support for the university’s response.
Chinese University said in a statement it had reported the matter to police. Some of the demonstrators had displayed banners and chanted slogans about Hong Kong independence, and were potentially “subverting state power”, it said.
The university condemned “illegal acts” during the demonstration and warned of legal implications under the national security legislation, while adding that the protesters could have breached Covid-19 rules outlawing public gatherings of more than four people.
The university would handle acts harming its reputation through disciplinary procedures, it said, decrying behaviour that could be “in breach of national security” as irresponsible and disrespectful towards graduates and their family members.
The students did not have the permission to stage the protest, the university said.
Owen Au Cheuk-hei, chairman of the student union’s provisional executive committee, said although the union did not organise Thursday’s protest, he was “disappointed” at management’s decision to call police.
“There is a big difference in the university’s stance, which has been more stringent compared with last year,” he said.
“Students’ freedom to express their views and hold activities on campus has been largely tightened recently, which I believe is related to the national security law as well as last year’s protests.”
During the 30-minute protest, campus security personnel warned the students on several occasions that they could be in breach of Covid-19 regulations and public order laws.
The demonstrators marched from University MTR station to the campus’ No 2 bridge, the scene of intense protests last November, when radicals threw objects onto the railway track and highway below during their five-day occupation of the site.
Thursday’s protest ended at the university mall, where students were originally due to attend their graduation ceremonies but instead had to watch them online.
Marchers also sang the protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong, which education authorities banned from being played in schools under the national security law because it was deemed to have close links to illegal and violent acts.
Chinese University was one of the tertiary institutions in Hong Kong hardest hit by the clashes between riot police and hardcore protesters a year ago.
Only Polytechnic University, which was taken over for 13 days by extreme elements of the protest movement and their supporters, came out worse from one of the most violent phases of the months-long unrest.
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