National security law: University of Hong Kong student union hopefuls plan cautious approach to avoid flouting Beijing-decreed legislation

Chan Ho-him
·4-min read

A group seeking election to the student union of Hong Kong’s oldest university has revealed it plans to adopt a more discreet approach to political issues under the shadow of the national security law, striking a balance between staying true to its values and avoiding the legislation’s pitfalls.

“Defiance”, the sole contenders to run the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) student union, also pledged on Tuesday to be more cooperative following management’s decision last week to cut off services to the body, which came two weeks after Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily described it as a “malignant tumour”.

HKU on Friday said the intervention was necessary as it accused the student union in recent years of using the campus to spread “propaganda” and make “inflammatory and potentially unlawful public statements and unfounded allegations against the university”.

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The university’s sidelining of the union – which is independently registered under the Societies Ordinance – includes reasserting control over the body’s facilities, cutting off its access to financial services and stopping the collection of dues on its behalf.

The management’s approach sparked fury among some students and alumni, who organised petitions against the decision.

Grilled by fellow students on Tuesday ahead of the by-election being held between May 24 and 28, the proposed student cabinet Defiance said it wanted to “strike a balance between freedom of speech and legal risks”.

The four-member group was asked about its stance on HKU management’s moves last week, as well as its take on sensitive political issues.

They earlier described the HKU intervention as “drawing a clear line of demarcation with the [student] union”, but told the consultation session they hoped at this stage to show “goodwill” to the administration.

University of Hong Kong cuts off services to student union over ‘propaganda’

“That does not mean we are backing down on our values,” said presidential hopeful Kwok Wing-ho, adding it would still “exhaust every way to protect [and ensure] that the student union can still manage the [facilities it previously controlled]”.

The union’s 68-page campaign booklet referred to “dwindling freedom of speech and imminent suppression” faced by HKU’s student union.

The manifesto added the risks surrounding students taking part in union activities were unprecedented, with the body “facing the grimmest challenges it has ever seen”.

Kwok Wing-ho (pictured with microphone) is aiming to become president of HKU’s student union. Photo: Felix Wong
Kwok Wing-ho (pictured with microphone) is aiming to become president of HKU’s student union. Photo: Felix Wong

The candidates also said they planned to handle political issues more discreetly, although they pledged to “speak out against injustice” in their campaign booklet.

“We will [for instance] issue statements on important issues,” Kwok said.

As examples, he pointed to HKU severing ties with the union last week and Beijing’s sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system, which include cutting the number of directly elected seats in the legislature.

One student asked the group if it would arrange a screening of Inside the Red Brick Wall – a documentary featuring a 13-day stand-off between protesters and police at Polytechnic University at the height of the 2019 anti-government protests – even if HKU management disapproved of such an event.

The aspirant cabinet said would consider doing so in venues outside the university, but would also consider the legal risks.

“We will not actively hold [activities] that would risk breaching the law. We would also seek legal advice,” he said. “We have to strike a balance between legal risks and freedom of speech, such that students’ safety [as participants] can be eventually protected.”

Kwok added: “We are neither lawyers, judges nor national security officers, so we cannot know for sure what may or may not break the law. But we have to resign [to the fact] that authorities have already declared certain phrases and slogans as unlawful.”

Most of Hong Kong’s eight public universities have been left without popularly elected student unions this year, with some young people deterred from putting themselves forward for election for fear of falling foul of the national security law.

Only PolyU’s student union is still operating after being elected by their peers in February.

In March, Chinese University’s popularly elected student union cabinet resigned on the same day as taking office, shortly after school management severed ties with the student body over concerns its pre-election manifesto could be in violation of the national security law, which was imposed last June and bans acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

University management also accused the union of “exploiting” the campus for their political agenda.

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