University leaders in Hong Kong have been urged to rediscover their role as the city’s “moral guides” by supporting students involved in mass protests.
Ahead of the new academic year, speculation has mounted about how university leaders will manage to remain outside the political fray once students return to campus, having kept largely silent during the escalation of demonstrations since June. Many claim that the scale of the pro-democracy protests – with an estimated 2 million people at one rally – indicates that they are a social movement rather than merely a student affair.
The perceived failure of campus heads to speak out against police brutality or other violence directed towards protesters has, however, been repeatedly criticised by student leaders. In a joint statement, leaders of students’ unions condemned a letter signed by 12 vice-chancellors that urged students to stay away from Yuen Long, where demonstrators had been attacked by a pro-Chinese mob dressed in white T-shirts.
“Turning a blind eye to the brutality of [the] Hong Kong police force and discouraging students from fighting for freedom of Hong Kong in such dreaded times” was a “cold-blooded act” displaying “ignorance”, read the statement, which compared vice-chancellors’ actions unfavourably with the interventions made during the student-led Umbrella Movement protests in 2014.
“[When] there were rumours of imminent shooting by the police force, then vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University Peter Mathieson, and vice-chancellor of Chinese University of Hong Kong Joseph Sung visited the students in Admiralty in person at once, with an intent to prevent the police force from shooting,” the joint statement added.
Michael O’Sullivan, associate professor of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he was disappointed by the failure of university presidents to back a “truth commission” proposed by Roland Chin, president of Hong Kong Baptist University.
“The idea received a lukewarm response, and other university heads failed to endorse it when pressured by students’ union members,” said Dr O’Sullivan, who also praised Professor Chin’s decision to question the arrest of a students’ union leader for buying a laser pointer.
“In a society where universities are celebrated, university heads need to step forward to offer guidance and support to the thousands of young people who feel they are sometimes standing up alone for Hong Kong’s future,” he said.
“If the university heads keep silent and do not take more of a stand to guide their own students, then universities themselves are in danger of losing their reputation in Hong Kong as keepers of [its] core values.”
Protesters’ demands include the withdrawal of a now-suspended extradition bill, and the introduction of universal suffrage. A survey of protesters at 12 different demonstrations, which was conducted by academics at four Hong Kong universities, found that the majority were aged between 20 and 29 and had completed higher education.
Much criticism has focused on Xiang Zhang, vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, who said he was “disheartened” by the storming of the legislature on 1 July, which he described as a “destructive act”. Some 2,000 students signed a petition condemning his words but welcomed the China-born scientist’s public meeting with them two weeks later.
Tao Zhang, senior lecturer in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Arts and Humanities, said Xiang Zhang’s “condemnation” of the demonstrations was significant for the leader of an institution widely held as a “beacon of liberal thought”.
“The principles the demonstrators are defending – democracy, liberty, social justice, freedom of thought and expression – precisely mirror the informing ideals of modern universities and values of global citizenship they seek to cultivate,” Tao Zhang said.
He said he understood that it was “prudent” for universities to maintain the “low-key stance” of neither criticising students nor the government, which provides the bulk of their funding.
But if students make good on threats to hold protests on campus in the new term, “university managers will face extremely difficult questions”, he said.
“To move against the protesters would signal capitulation to Beijing and the abandonment of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle [and] could be seen across the world as a betrayal of fundamental academic values,” Tao Zhang said.
An HKU spokeswoman said that Xiang Zhang had “on more than one occasion, expressed his stance on violence, stressing that violence is never a solution, and that he is personally against violence of any kind, by any party, at any juncture and for any reason”.
“In the midst of recent protests, the university and Professor Zhang have repeatedly urged students to make their personal safety and that of others their highest priority. Furthermore, the president believes that listening to one another and having constructive dialogues is the way to resolve differences,” the spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman said that senior staff had been meeting with students and academics “to address issues that have been raised and reflected in the current social debate”.
Print headline: Stand up for protesters, Hong Kong v-cs urged