16 September 2019
HKU students and staff staged a silent march Tuesday to protest political meddling in the university's affairs, but the turnout was not too big. Photo: Reuters
HKU students and staff staged a silent march Tuesday to protest political meddling in the university's affairs, but the turnout was not too big. Photo: Reuters

Why many students and staff opted out of the HKU rally

Pro-Beijing politicians and establishment camp members from Hong Kong University’s governing council may be taking some comfort from the turnout figure at Tuesday’s protest march organized by staff and students.

In the rally, which came a week after the university council blocked liberal law professor Johannes Chan from becoming the new pro-vice-chancellor, only 2,000 students and teaching staff took part.

While the number was enough to make the government camp sit up and take notice, it however represents less than 10 percent of the university’s total staff and student strength. 

According to HKU website, the university had 7,197 academic staff in the 2014-15 academic year. As for the student population, while we do not have the latest precise figure, it could be well above 25,000. 

In the last academic year, the university had a total of 27,933 students, including more than 6,000 from mainland China.

Now, what explains the relatively weak turnout at Tuesday’s rally which was aimed at outlining the need to protect academic freedoms and curb political interference in the university’s affairs?

Some senior professors who took part in the silent march said many junior colleagues chose to stay away as they were afraid that their career prospects would be affected if they come out openly and take a stand against the establishment.

As Chan was victimized for his liberal views and support for pro-democracy activists, there was fear among junior staff that they too might suffer if they stand up and denounce the university council.

Lecturers, for instance, may be denied promotions or permanent tenures.

The argument definitely sounds convincing, but what about the lack of more student participation? How does one explain that?

Well, if we search for honest answers, we may be staring at one stark reality: many students have either become weary, or have simply resigned themselves to the prospect of Beijing’s hidden hand in key decisions of the university council. 

And some may be even supporting the council’s recent decision on Chan, as they believe an antagonistic stance toward China won’t be in HKU’s long-term interest.

While institutional autonomy must be preserved as much as possible, the university also needs to learn to operate in an environment where Beijing will seek to protect its own interests, those students feel.

With students and staff from China constituting a significant part of HKU now, it will also become more difficult for the university to take a strong stand against political interference from Beijing.

Student scholars from China accounted for more than 30 percent of HKU’s 674 international professoriate staff last year. Also, mainlanders made up over 64 percent of the total international student number at the university.

Given all these factors, it is not surprising that a large section of students chose to stay away from the latest protest following the Johannes Chan saga.

While there is a general perception that local university students are all pro-democracy and anti-Beijing, many youth are actually taking a more realistic approach and avoiding overt hostility toward China.

The weak turnout at Tuesday’s rally could prompt pro-Beijing politicians to argue that the HKU council’s decision on Chan is being supported by the university’s “silent majority”.

It is no secret that the central government is keeping a close watch on the student and academic community in Hong Kong following the 2014 Occupy protests.

“Youth education” is a top priority of Beijing’s top leaders, as they want Hong Kong to “decolonize” and embrace the Communist Party’s authority.

On Monday, a day before the HKU staff and students held their silent march, Sun Chunlan, head of the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, said in a speech in Hong Kong that local youth must love the Chinese motherland and work to make nation more rich and powerful.

While it may be too much to ask for “love” for the Communist regime, Sun can at least be happy for the time being that the turnout at the HKU rally Tuesday was not very large. 

That said, he and his mainland colleagues will be mistaken if they think that Hong Kong people will give up on their campaign to protect academic freedoms and institutional autonomy.

The battle, in fact, may have just begun.

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EJ Insight writer