In the wake of campus clashes, at least four Hong Kong universities restrict public access to open spaces … but should they?

Lilian Cheng

Four Hong Kong universities have decided, in the wake of anti-government protests, to restrict access to campuses, including open spaces which members of the public were previously allowed to use.

In the 2000s, Polytechnic University (PolyU), the University of Hong Kong (HKU), Baptist University and Lingnan University had all promised to keep some areas open to public access when they asked the government for more land.

But checks by the Post showed they had recently blocked public access to such areas.

With the new term starting this month, all eight publicly-funded universities tightened security, with checks for visitors and students, as well as limited vehicle access. Some also installed card-reading machines at entrances.

This came after radical protesters entered several campuses last November, vandalised buildings and blocked nearby roads. The worst affected was PolyU, which was occupied by radical protesters for almost two weeks.

The new campus security measures have sparked debate on whether universities should remain open to the public.

Although some feel the institutions are right to act, given the scenes of vandalism and destruction last November, others argue that campuses are part of the community and should remain open.

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“I often see many elderly people doing tai chi and their morning exercises on our campuses,” said Professor Tang Bo-sin, programme director of HKU’s urban planning programme. “It is a pity that the current arrangement has probably disallowed free access to the public and these community activities.”

A check by the Post on land leases and relevant district council and Legislative Council documents of the eight publicly-funded universities found that at least four – PolyU, HKU, Baptist and Lingnan universities – had committed to providing “public open spaces” for outsiders when they sought government land grants.

These spaces are now blocked, including some ground floor areas and an open space in two parts of PolyU, as well as a garden in HKU’s new Centennial campus, a public area outside Baptist University’s journalism block, and some leisure spaces in Lingnan University.

Two sites – one at PolyU and another at Baptist University – were reopened last week following complaints.

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“It has been an unwritten rule over the past decades that universities will be open to everyone,” said urban designer Vincent Ng Wing-Shun. “The university managements embraced that openness and used it as a bargaining chip when they wanted new land.”

Barriers at a checkpoint in Lingnan University. Photo: Jonathan Wong

HKU, for example, promised in 2009 to allow public access to its 1,900 square metre (20,451 sq ft) Centennial Garden, where its new Centennial campus is located. Now students and staff have to present their ID cards to enter, while visitors face security checks or require registration.

Responding to queries from the Post, HKU said it would exercise flexibility in allowing access to the campus.

Lingnan University said it had offered its open area for public use, but restriction of access was needed “in light of current social situations”.

Security at PolyU. Photo: Winson Wong

A PolyU spokeswoman said it would act according to its land lease conditions. The campus in Hung Hom had promised in 2009 to keep an open space of 7,850 square metres (84,497 sq ft) available to the public at its new building, Block Z. In its land lease, another 6,436 square metres (68,889 sq ft) at the main campus was marked as mandatory for public access from 7am to 10pm.

The campus, which was badly damaged in November, is now partly shut. The university has been installing turnstiles at its main entrances since early January and students and staff will be expected to tap their ID passes to enter when the new term begins on Monday.

Last Wednesday, security guards manned the entrances of the main campus, and uninvited visitors were forbidden from entering.

At the entrance to Block Z – about a 10-minute walk from the main campus – a Post reporter was allowed to enter and visit the space that was reopened last week following media reports.

Still, the passageway linking Block Z and the main campus was sealed, blocking any connection to the other open space.

Owan Li, a Year Four PolyU student and a student representative on its governing council, felt the university was obliged under its land lease to open up its public spaces instead of “isolating itself from the outside world”.

However, an engineering masters student from the mainland said the new security measures were reassuring to PolyU students after last November’s campus crisis.

“I believe it is better for the campus to remain semi-open for now and not to allow strangers in, especially after the events before which led to a suspension of our studies,” said the student, who asked to be identified only as Lu.

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Lingnan University in Tuen Mun promised the local district council in 2007 that residents would be able to use its open spaces, as well as a 300 square metre (3,229 sq ft) function room at its new campus block.

Now all campus entrances are shut to outsiders, except for a passageway at the back, allowing members of the public to pass it on their way to other parts of the neighbourhood.

A guard at a security checkpoint said only students, staff and authorised persons could enter the campus.

Ivan Lam, 27, a research assistant at the university, felt it was a waste of resources to block access to the open spaces and function room, as the campus’ distant location made it an unlikely protest spot.

A security guard on duty at an open space in Baptist University. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

When Baptist University was negotiating for land to build its School of Communication and Academy of Visual Arts building on Hereford Road in 2007, it promised public access to an open space of 1,800 square metres (19,375 sq ft).

This area remains open to the public, but the rest of the campus is closed to outsiders.

Urban designer Vincent Ng criticised the restrictions at the universities, as well as in other areas in Hong Kong, saying: “We are now setting fences, barricades on campuses, on bridges and in government complexes. A city should never use administrative measures to settle political problems. Needless to say, this also violates public rights.”

A city should never use administrative measures to settle political problems

Vincent Ng, urban designer

But pro-establishment lawmaker Gary Chan Hak-kan, chairman of the legislative panel on security, said the tightened measures were understandable as many universities had been “traumatised” by radical protesters.

“Not only did the attacks damage the universities’ reputation, there were also protesters inside the campuses, and reports of dangerous substances and chemicals in laboratories being stolen,” Chan said. “The new measures are just acceptable protection.”

He added that many universities around the world would not accept such intrusions, adding that the heightened security should remain in place as protests in the city had not died down.

The new measures are just acceptable protection

Gary Chan, pro-establishment lawmaker

Professor Ng Mee-kam, director of Chinese University’s urban studies programme, felt there was room for flexibility, but stressed that universities could only serve as public utilities when they were not abused and left to function properly.

“When a university notices ongoing protests in the city, I guess it can tighten measures right away and students and the public will understand,” she said. “But when the situation gradually quietens down, these measures can be relaxed – there can be guards, but they should allow the public to enter.”

French tourist Marian Gobeaux, 19, found the security measures “disturbing, but understandable” when he visited HKU.

“Universities are supposed to be vibrant and dynamic, welcoming everyone. They serve as symbols of how open a city can be,” he said.

He recalled that when he went to Australia on an exchange programme, he found that “everyone could enjoy the campus”.

However, he said that in France, which has experienced terrorist attacks, there were entry restrictions on campuses in recent years. “There are guards to check everyone’s belongings and only invited visitors can get in.”

A spokesman for the Lands Department said it had to study each case before considering whether there had been a breach of the land lease. Generally speaking, if a certain area had to be closed for temporary repairs, it would not be considered a violation, otherwise, the department would follow up and take further action based on complaints.

This article In the wake of campus clashes, at least four Hong Kong universities restrict public access to open spaces … but should they? first appeared on South China Morning Post

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