HKU cites ‘national security’ in cutting off student union

Professor accuses university of ‘aligning itself with a propaganda narrative that is not intellectually defensible’

May 6, 2021
The University of Hong Kong
Source: iStock

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) has become the city’s second major institution to cut off support for its student union.  

Critics called the action another step to limit critical discourse since Beijing passed a national security law in Hong Kong last year. The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) “temporarily suspended” support for its student union executive committee in February.

An HKU statement called the student union “increasingly politicised in recent years, utilising the university campus as a platform for its political propaganda” and accused it of “unlawful public statements and unfounded allegations against the university”.

Its statement referenced Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which it said “provides for upholding national security. The university is not a safe haven outside the law.”

HKU will stop collecting membership fees for the union, which was founded in 1912, and “enforce management rights” over its facilities.

In a petition, the student union said the move “severely undermined the interests of students” and asked the administration to reconsider. “Both sides can be winners if the university can uphold genuine communication and cooperation with the union, especially during [the] difficult times Hong Kong now has to face,” it said.  

The university seems to be treading carefully between allowing some activities that would be barred in mainland China, while being wary of the new law. It warned the union against showing a documentary about a local activist, but the screening went ahead anyway. The annual washing of a monument commemorating the 1989 Beijing student protests proceeded as usual on 1 May. 

Chris Fraser, a philosophy professor who has worked at HKU since 2009, told Times Higher Education that the university’s statement was “deeply worrying”.

“In suggesting that HKUSU statements somehow threaten ‘national security’ or violate security regulations, HKU is aligning itself with a propaganda narrative that is not intellectually defensible,” he said. “An internationally reputable university cannot be seen to take steps against its own student organisations on spurious political grounds. Doing so risks serious harm to the university’s intellectual integrity.”

Professor Fraser warned the global higher education community to take heed of what was happening.

“Hong Kong today is a momentous example of how a liberal, open civil society can be dismantled more quickly and ruthlessly than anyone might have thought possible,” he said. “Those of us around the world concerned with civil liberties, including campus freedom of speech, should be alarmed and should take care that the factors operative in Hong Kong are never allowed to gain a foothold in other liberal societies.”

The student union itself still exists, and a new group called “Defiance” will run in its by-elections this month, local media reported.

In February, CUHK distanced itself from a newly elected student union executive committee. In a statement, it said that the committee members made “potentially unlawful statements and false allegations”.

CUHK would stop providing some support for administration, venue use and fee collection, according to a report by public broadcaster RTHK. In March, the union representatives resigned.

Owen Au, a CUHK politics major, told THE he felt a “very big difference” in the feeling on campus, compared with when he was the student union president in 2017.

He related the changes on campus to “the entire atmosphere of Hong Kong and its freedoms of speech, association and assembly”.

“The narrowing space for student unions or student movements is quite worrying,” he said. “However, despite being worried, many students have not given up yet.” 

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