Students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong used their graduation ceremony on Thursday to protest against the jailing of local democracy activists and an incoming law regulating use of the national anthem.
Youngsters from the social sciences department stood up and chanted: “We reject political prosecution, release all political prisoners”, during the event at the university’s Sha Tin campus, which was attended by about 4,500 students.
Just before university vice chancellor Professor Rocky Tuan Sung-chi began a speech, another group staged a demonstration against national anthem legislation. A small number held up placards and a black banner which read: “Anthem law today, Article 23 tomorrow”.
Hong Kong’s legislature will soon begin scrutinising a bill that stipulates anyone who distorts or insults the Chinese national anthem could face a fine of HK$50,000 (US$6,380) and a jail sentence of up to three years.
Article 23 refers to the section of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, that says the city must enact legislation against treason, sedition and subversion.
Tuan appeared unswayed by the protests as he continued his speech. He urged graduates to stay focused on their ambitions.
“Dear students, I call on you to cherish and remain true to your aspirations, and to not forget the pure and simple reasons that motivated you at the outset,” Tuan said.
He recalled a childhood experience that had inspired him to become a biomedical scientist, saying a crab on a beach ignited his curiosity for biology.
“Such a small organism, but it has such a great ability to adapt to nature,” Tuan said.
The vice chancellor left Hong Kong in the 1960s for the United States, where he attended high school and later earned a PhD in life sciences from New York’s Rockefeller University.
He took on the leading role at Chinese University last year after the departure of his predecessor, Joseph Sung Jao-yiu.
He did not meet the media after Thursday’s ceremony.
Student Cheung Chin-kiu, 22, lamented after the event that a number of local pro-democracy activists had been jailed in recent years, including 13 protesters who stormed the Legislative Council complex in 2014 during a demonstration against the government’s development plans for the rural northwest New Territories.
“Professor Chan Kin-man will also face trial this month,” Cheung said.
Chan is an associate professor in sociology who gave his last lecture at Chinese University on Wednesday. He was one of three founders of Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy movement, which culminated in pro-democracy protests blocking major roads in the city for 79 days.
Cheung said the graduation ceremony protest had been carried out in the most gentle way.
“We only stood to raise a banner and took a moment of silence,” he said.
Asked for his opinion on Tuan, Cheung said the vice chancellor had rarely spoken to students directly since taking office at the start of the year.