Hong Kong targets student unions to tame universities


HONG KONG – Police arrived at the University of Hong Kong around 3pm, wearing black jackets referring to them as National Security Officers. They cordoned off the offices of the Student Union, combed inside and confiscated several baskets of materials.

A senior police official said they were investigating the union over comments from its leaders that authorities said glorified violence. But the basic message of the mid-July raid was clear: The authorities were cracking down on the city’s universities, particularly the student activists.

Students have been among the most determined protesters during mass demonstrations in Hong Kong in recent years against the tight grip of the Chinese Communist Party, and they have emerged as a powerful political force. Now, the authorities are moving to undermine their influence by using a National Security Law imposed by Beijing that gives them sweeping powers to silence the opposition.

School administrators have made it difficult for student unions to collect and regulate fees on campus. Union leaders have been suspended from their work related to the pro-democracy protests. People’s Daily, the party’s largest newspaper, Earlier this year The Hong Kong University Consortium compared it to a “malignancy”.

Student groups – already dwarfed by fear and pressure from university officials – are wondering how long they will stay.

“To tell the truth, it looks like we are just waiting for death,” said Yanyi Chan, a union leader at Lingnan University, where the administration said it would stop charging membership fees on behalf of the group.

The unions, outspoken and at times combative, are long-standing pillars of civil society in Hong Kong. In 2014, student leaders helped start months of pro-democracy protests by Storming a square in the city center; They are later Representing the demonstrators in the negotiations with the government. When protests erupted again in 2019, unions helped organize a general strike and Funding legal aid for arrested protesters.

The unions also trained prominent opposition figures. Nathan Lu was led by the Lingnan Union, which organized students in Boycott Classes 2014 In a call to expand voting rights. Two years later, at the age of 23, he was elected to the city legislature as its youngest member. He was sworn in with a protest against Beijing, saying he would Never be loyal to “a regime that kills its own people.” (The government later excluded him and removed him from the legislature; he is now living in exile in London.)

The rise of unions also stemmed in part from their desire – like student activists around the world – to adopt divisive positions. Unions have sometimes been accused of encouraging discrimination against students from mainland China. some too A rift with moderate allies On issues such as Hong Kong independence like the idea, anathema to many older activists, has gained traction with young people in Hong Kong.

Johnson Young, who led the Federation of Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2012 and 2013, said: “Student government has always acted as a radical wing of the pro-democracy movement. We don’t always succeed, we are not always popular with our ideas, but we try to create a new space.”

Some of the most violent incidents of the 2019 protests were A siege that lasted for days on two university campuses In November of that year, when students threw homemade bombs and set barricades on fire, police fired tear gas and water cannons.

The roles of the guilds in these confrontations were often unclear. But for Beijing, the fiery confrontations reinforced the view that universities, and by extension student leaders, were some of the city’s most dangerous sources of resistance. The authorities moved quickly to eliminate them.

In January, the leaders of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Student Union hung After they erected a memorial to a student who was martyred during the 2019 protests; Officials said they ignored Covid-19 protocols. In March, Chinese University officials accused union leaders of potentially illegal behavior after they criticized the national security law. leaders quit en masse.

The recent police raid at the University of Hong Kong stemmed from student leaders’ comments about a man stabbing a police officer Then he killed himself on July 1. The students had expressed their “deep sadness” at the attacker’s death and appreciation for his “sacrifice”, echoing the sympathies of some pro-democracy activists for a man they saw as a martyr.

Officials responded angrily. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said she was “ashamed” and “angry” at the students. The Government Security Office described al-Haddad as “no different from supporting and encouraging terrorism” and suggested that the union may have violated the security law.

guild leaders Apologize and quit. But Ms Lamm demanded further action from the university, which within hours said it no longer recognized the group and later ordered it to vacate its offices.

No one was arrested in the July 16 police raid, though police said the investigation was still open.

With the pressure on unions increasing, students fear that simply joining unions could make them potential targets. several universities Failed to mobilize enough candidates To run for union cabinets this year.

Brandon Ng had not planned to join a student union in his first year at Chinese university this year, wanting to focus on his studies. But he said that when the union’s cabinet resigned, he felt obligated to continue their legacy. Join a smaller guild representing his dormitory.

Soon he saw how the space for activity dwindled. Activities that were previously routine, such as the distribution of leaflets containing political messages, were seen as dangerous.

Mr. Ng said: “Now, if you try to hand out leaflets, people will say, ‘Why are you so brave? “

In Lingnan, the union still advises students who are facing legal problems related to the protest. He also continued to take an interest in the more moderate tasks of student government, such as distributing food stamps and surveying students about the university’s response to the pandemic.

But a first-year member, Kitty Lu, said the primary goal was to show that the group still existed.

“We can’t do anything,” she said. “We just don’t want to let this union go away.”

The fate of the unions has also increased concerns about a Wider crackdown on universities. While student groups are perhaps the most visible sources of dissent in universities, professors are also concerned about their ability to publish on politically sensitive topics. Students walked away from some class discussions.

The government has made clear that its scrutiny will not end with the unions. In its statement from the University of Hong Kong, the Security Bureau said the union’s behavior “clearly reflects the importance” of “government oversight of educational institutions”.

Universities are already reviewing their curricula. On Monday, three schools announced that they will implement national security education next year, through new seminars or revised core curricula. Hong Kong’s education minister said he expects other schools to follow suit soon.

Of the remaining five publicly funded universities, only City University of Hong Kong responded to inquiries about how to implement national security education. In a statement, she only said that she would “consistently adhere to the principle of ‘separating politics from education’.”

At the University of Hong Kong, a different kind of disengagement is underway, as officials seek to erase any trace of the now shunned union.

As officers cycled through the union’s offices during the raid, billboards around the campus bearing union flyers were empty. On the office doors themselves, a few struts of peeling stickers remained.

Within days, school officials changed the locks. On one of the glass walls, large plaster letters that once identified a room as “Union Photocopy Center” read only “Photocopy Center.” It was the ghost of the word “union” still visible.

joi dong Contribute to research.

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