Sun, Sep 24, 2017 - Page 4 News List

Pro-independence posters banned at HK universities

AFP, HONG KONG

Chinese University of Hong Kong Student Union president Justin Au poses in front of the “democracy wall,” which has posters calling for and against a split from China, at the university’s campus on Wednesday.

Photo: AFP

Universities have become the latest battleground over freedoms in Hong Kong as a ban on signs on campuses advocating independence from China sparked fresh fears that the territory’s liberties are under threat.

As the academic term began earlier this month, posters and banners calling for Hong Kong to split off from China were plastered on walls and bulletin boards, after a tense summer that saw pro-democracy lawmakers ousted from the Legislative Council of Hong Kong and leading activists jailed.

Independence calls grew out of the failure of mass Umbrella Movement rallies in 2014 to win democratic reform for Hong Kong and have been fanned by growing concerns that Beijing is tightening its grip on the city.

The nascent independence movement has incensed China and local officials have also railed against activists.

When university chiefs penned a joint statement last week describing pro-independence banners as an abuse of free speech, angry students accused them of kowtowing to Beijing and censoring legitimate political debate.

“Freedom of expression is not absolute,” the statement said, casting independence as contravening the territory’s “mini-constitution,” the Basic Law.

University authorities also ordered students to immediately take down banners that violated school policies.

Student unions questioned how putting a political opinion went against the Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of speech.

“Universities are supposed to be the last bastions to defend these values, but instead they became the first ones to try to control [us],” Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Student Union president Justin Au (區子灝) told reporters.

Student anger was also exacerbated when a pro-Beijing legislator called for the murder of independence advocates at a public rally last week, which authorities failed to publicly condemn.

“It shows the powerful may have more freedom of speech than ordinary citizens,” CUHK Student Union secretary Thomas Lee said.

However, there has also been pushback from mainland Chinese students on campuses against the independence signs, with rival posters now slapped up on the universities’ public “democracy walls,” where people can have their say.

Several mainland students interviewed at CUHK largely condemned the pro-independence banner that had gone up there, saying that it made them uncomfortable as Chinese or that it was simply naive or “stupid.”

“It’s unrealistic, they don’t understand the country,” said one student who gave her name as Chloe.

“I think the banner is a bit stupid,” added a student from Guangzhou, who provided his surname as Kwan. “The freest people are those who follow the rules. Those who don’t will feel oppressed everywhere.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said there is “no room for discussion” of a split from China and what was happening at the universities required “immediate action”.

Analysts said Hong Kong’s hard line on independence reflects Beijing’s zero-tolerance stance.

“It is the one thing they fear most, because it anticipates the break-up of a unified China,” said Suzanne Pepper, an honorary fellow at CUHK. “I think Beijing would rather destroy Hong Kong than allow that advocacy to take root here.”

There have already been fears over interference in Hong Kong’s education system and some teachers have said they feel under increasing pressure to self-censor.

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