26 March 2019
A student looks at pro-independence posters that were put up at the Chinese University of Hong Kong recently. Photo: Reuters
A student looks at pro-independence posters that were put up at the Chinese University of Hong Kong recently. Photo: Reuters

College campuses: Free speech vs political correctness

As controversy rages over pro-independence banners and posters in college campuses, it is certain that Hong Kong’s establishment camp will step up a fight against what it deems to be subversive activities within the student community.

Taking a cue from Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who denounced the posters last week as a violation of the “one country” principle, some pro-Beijing groups and lawmakers have already called for strict action against those responsible for putting up the contentious materials.

Meanwhile, university authorities are being urged to reexamine their rules as to what is allowed and not allowed within the walls of the institutions, to ensure that students don’t indulge in “unlawful behavior”.

In all this, there is implicit criticism that the campuses have been too tolerant over the years with regard to allowing political activities by the youth.

Amid this debate, university bosses have been forced to go on the defensive as they grapple with issues such as institutional autonomy, political correctness and free speech rights of students.    

While insisting that they are against calls for Hong Kong independence, the university chiefs have begun to push back, however slightly, against criticism from political forces outside.

On Wednesday, Lingnan University President Leonard Cheng said it is okay for students to discuss the independence topic, even though the university is against the idea.

Students can learn from discussions, Cheng said, pointing out that university campuses are places to acquire knowledge.

Though he didn’t say it, he made clear the view that students should be allowed to debate issues, even if it meant some controversial topics would come up, rather than see restrictions imposed on them.

Among others, a vice-chairman of the Board of Trustees of the New Asia College at Chinese University also said that students should have the freedom to discuss various issues, including Hong Kong independence.

The question in the city right now is this: whether discussion or talking about Hong Kong independence is illegal or not.

Article 1 of the Basic Law states that “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China”. That, however, shouldn’t be interpreted as forbidding academic discussion on the sensitive issue, independent observers argue.

Why should Hong Kong automatically set a firewall on sensitive political topics that would embarrass the Communist Party?

Education University chief Frederick Ma has urged lawmakers not to pressure school authorities over the issue of banners and posters that appeared on some university campuses last week.

The comment prompted an angry reaction from a pro-Beijing politician, Ng Chau Pei, who accused Ma of being too weak and soft to deal with a critical issue such as independence talk.

Ng went on further, painting Ma’s institution in a negative light and saying that the school has lost its value judgment.

Well, what we can say, the reaction is just a reflection of the mindset of pro-Beijing politicians. Leading figures from the establishment camp don’t think through issues calmly, they just blindly follow Beijing’s ideas and policies and wage campaigns at the behest of the mainland authorities.

In keeping with this, they are putting pressure on the government to tighten the grip on universities, so that any further attempts by students or academics to engage in sensitive political activities can be thwarted.

Early this week, pro-establishment legislators petitioned Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung demanding that the government take action over the pro-independence banners in campuses.

Also, they urged university authorities to implement policies to prevent similar incidents from occurring and to issue a ban on material advocating independence.

“It is indisputable that Hong Kong independence violates the Basic Law,” they said.

“Opposing Hong Kong independence is the wish of the general public, and society is concerned that if this incident continues, there will be a negative effect on universities and even the whole of society.”

While they may have a point, the lawmakers need to ask themselves some questions.

Is it right to demand that university authorities clamp down on student freedoms just to ensure political correctness on the campus?

Should the free speech rights of the youth be curbed just because some among them had engaged in questionable activities?

The pro-Beijing lawmakers will perhaps see things in a different light if they accept the truth that the campus posters are just a reflection of the growing discontent among our young men and women.

Through the controversial banners, the youth are merely voicing their unhappiness over issues such as lack of political reforms and Beijing’s meddling in Hong Kong affairs, rather than signaling any real goal for Hong Kong independence.

Now, is it not time for the establishment camp to engage the youth in an open debate and confront the real issues, instead of trying to prevent the students from raising their voices? 

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EJ Insight writer

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