Hong Kong’s oldest university has moved to distance itself from its student union, reasserting control over the body’s facilities and cutting off its access to financial services over accusations the “increasingly politicised” group used the campus to spread “propaganda”.
The University of Hong Kong (HKU) said in a statement on Friday that the measures were “imperative” to clearly “define the legal responsibilities” of both the school’s management and the student union, which it accused of putting the institution in legal jeopardy. It added further action would be taken “if necessary”.
The move to sideline the body came nearly two weeks after Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily lashed out at the student union following its criticisms of the Beijing-imposed national security law in an open letter to HKU president Professor Xiang Zhang. The newspaper called the group “a malignant tumour” that should be removed for “blatantly smearing ‘one country, two systems’”.
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“[The student union] has become increasingly politicised in recent years, utilising the university campus as a platform for its political propaganda. It has repeatedly made inflammatory and potentially unlawful public statements and unfounded allegations against the university,” HKU’s statement said.
“The undertakings of [the union] have compromised the mutual trust established over the years, to the extent of undermining the overall interests of the university and tarnishing its reputation. The university strongly condemns [the union’s] radical acts and remarks.”
Stressing that the university was “not a safe haven outside the law”, the statement went on to say that it had the responsibility to safeguard the “collective interests of all its members including staff and students”.
“It is not acceptable that the [union], an independent student organisation, disregards the university’s advice and the overall interests of the HKU community while taking advantage of the services and facilities offered by the university,” it added.
The university said it would no longer collect dues on the union’s behalf, while a source at the institution said if the body wished to use its facilities going forward, it would probably have to seek permission.
In response, the student union expressed “deepest regret” for what it said was the management’s drawing of a “clear line of demarcation unilaterally without any prior notice”.
“The act of the university will have a far-reaching impact on the operation of the union and its sub-organisations … [and] has severely undermined the interests of students,” the union, which has more than 100 sub-organisations, said.
It also urged HKU authorities to reconsider the decision, citing the importance of maintaining cooperation and communication between the union and administration.
HKU’s student union, which was established as a legally independent entity under the Societies Ordinance, has been vocal on political matters, opposing Beijing’s drastic overhaul of the city’s electoral system and raising concerns over the security law. The law came into effect last June and targets acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, while also requiring schools and universities to promote national security education.
In its open letter to the president on April 16, the union accused the university of “bending over to the wolves of tyranny” and “giving up institutional autonomy”, while urging Zhang to clarify how HKU planned to conform to the security law, including whether courses on the matter would be conducted.
In February, the student union also held screenings of a documentary featuring pro-independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei, an HKU alumnus, despite university management publicly urging them not to do so.
Mak Tung-wing, deputy convenor of the HKU alumni concern group, believed the management’s move was “political suppression camouflaged as administrative actions”.
“It is clearly to weaken the legitimacy and representation of the student union,” said Mak, the union’s president in 1987.
Mak said the union had been politically active for decades, and its recent acts were “nothing different from before”.
“Under the [new] measures, the mutual understandings between the university administration and the student union, in terms of enhancing university governance, has become untenable,” he said.
HKU, founded in 1911, is the city’s best ranked university, coming in 22nd out of 1,000 of its global peers according to Quacquarelli Symonds’ World University Rankings 2021.
HKU’s moves come about two months after Chinese University severed ties with its own student union over concerns that a pre-election manifesto it published that criticised the national security law could itself be in violation of the legislation. University management also accused the group of “exploiting” the campus for their political agenda.