Window of calm closes as Hong Kong classes resume

Strikes planned, welcomes canned, visits discouraged and events cancelled as campuses brace for strife

August 26, 2019
Hong Kong protests
Source: Getty

Hong Kong universities are preparing for turmoil as the most intense protests in the Chinese territory’s history belatedly affect campuses.

Universities have been all but empty during the long summer break, with academics able only to guess at the extent of students’ involvement in the protests. But up to 11 students’ unions are considering strikes when the new academic year starts on 2 September.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU), the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University have quietly cancelled centralised inauguration ceremonies for new students – abandoning, in HKU’s case, a 20-year-old tradition. “This year the university has decided to let faculties arrange activities more in line with the style of the faculty,” a spokeswoman said.

Francis Lee, director of CUHK’s Journalism and Communication School, said that student strikes were very likely and that universities were “preparing for handling any emergencies”.

He said that universities could manage strikes of two to three weeks’ duration relatively easily, with teachers deferring assignments and offering make-up classes. “Universities can simply say that they respect students’ right to strike but also respect the wishes of students who want to continue their studies,” he said.

“But if the strike goes on for longer, it will be much more difficult for universities to handle.”

Professor Lee said that if major disruption transpired, Chinese authorities could blame the academy for “not having done its job” of educating young people properly. “There is a high chance that the authorities may try to exert further control on the educational sector in the city, though at this point there is no formal way for the authorities to hold universities accountable,” he said.

With campuses hosting only a smattering of summer semester students, and many academics away undertaking research or visiting their home countries, universities have had an arm’s-length view of the protests.

The president of the Hong Kong Baptist University Students’ Union was arrested after buying a laser pointer, while Professor Lee said that at least eight CUHK students had been arrested by early August. But the numbers could be far higher, with universities unlikely to know that students have been detained unless family or friends alerted them.

Surveys of about 6,700 protesters at 12 separate demonstrations, led by Professor Lee and researchers from three other universities, found that 57 per cent were aged under 30. “We don’t have exact figures, but [most] protesters aged between 18 and 22 were probably students,” he said.

Liz Jackson, director of HKU’s Comparative Education Research Centre, said that international scholars were declining invitations to speak on Hong Kong campuses, with “many small-scale events” postponed or cancelled. She said that universities were also reviewing events due to the difficulty of travelling on scheduled protest days.

Dr Jackson said that the danger from the unrest had been “vastly overestimated”, with visitors facing little threat unless they actively sought out protests. “A few video clips are being juxtaposed with horrific and morally irresponsible references to Tiananmen by journalists with nothing better to do than stir up international excitement and find the most provocative people to quote,” she said.

Hong Kong academics also faced a hard task balancing duty of care with the encouragement of free expression, she added. “Students start university here at 17 – as an educator, when you see clips of police hitting youth [of] 17 and younger, it is not so simple to applaud youth optimism and…ideals,” she said.

Dr Jackson said that Hong Kong authorities had a tendency to dismiss protesters as “children being foolish”, while many locals erred towards “accepting authority no matter its message”. With young people irritated by such behaviour, university administrators’ pleas for safety inevitably became associated with “anti-protest, paternalistic perspectives”.

“Educators’ responsibility for student safety and their potential responsibility for respecting…freedom of thought and action are conflicting. It makes it hard to be an educator here,” she said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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