25 March 2019
Education University president Stephen Cheung said if students of the university were behind the "shameful" poster, he will let the institution's disciplinary committee deal with them. Photo: RTHK/TVB
Education University president Stephen Cheung said if students of the university were behind the "shameful" poster, he will let the institution's disciplinary committee deal with them. Photo: RTHK/TVB

Taunting the dead: Free speech or moral violence?

If you are a mother, how would you feel if your children taunted another mother whose young son committed suicide? Would you be ashamed of your children for putting up posters at a college campus “congratulating” the grieving mother after her son jumped to his death? Or would you tell your children it’s their free speech right to be so callous?

I have wondered about this all week after two unidentified people put up the nauseating poster at the Education University, which trains students to become teachers. University staff are trying to determine if the two are students. But the mothers of the pair must know who they are, especially now that pictures of the suspects have been widely circulated on social media. They should ask themselves if they raised their children properly.

The mothers of student union leaders at Hong Kong’s various universities must ask themselves why their children condone such sickening behavior as part of free speech. Supposing their own children committed suicide. How would they feel if they received “congratulations” and were told such a callous act is part of free speech?

The poster at the Education University targeted Education Undersecretary Christine Choi Yuk-lin, who the opposition has labeled as a pro-Beijing stooge with a hidden agenda to brainwash students through national education. Student leaders and leaders of the so-called democracy camp fiercely opposed her appointment to such a senior education post. So it’s fair to say the poster mocking her for her son’s suicide was politically-driven.

Shortly after that poster went up, unidentified people struck back at the opposition camp by putting up a poster congratulating Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo who spent much of his life in mainland prisons and died recently while still in detention. The parents of these callous people should also ask themselves if they raised their children properly.

Hong Kong’s politics have become so divisive that finding common ground on anything is impossible. But surely, despite the rancor in our politics there must be room for compassion. What does it say about our society when taunts hurled at a grieving mother and a grieving widow who have lost loved ones turn into a political debate about free speech? A civilized society should know how to put politics aside when compassion is called for.

I have never met Choi and in fact had an argument with her office when she made excuses to avoid coming to my TV show. But that doesn’t mean I should hold a grudge and show no compassion. Parents expect their offspring to outlive them. Losing a young offspring is not only tragic but also emotionally draining.

I applaud education sector legislator Ip Kin-yuen, who defeated Choi in last year’s Legislative Council election, for offering his condolences to her and for speaking out against the poster. But why have others from the opposition not spoken out against those who put up the poster and against student leaders who condoned it as free speech?

Could it be that opposition leaders, who condemned the appointment of Choi as education undersecretary, also believe it is free speech to taunt a political adversary in her moment of grief? If not, then the opposition should issue a statement condemning such behavior as unacceptable and making clear free speech has limits.

Most people in free societies know free speech is not absolute. If, for example, US President Donald Trump was mocked for losing his son to suicide, I am sure even his worst enemies would condemn such behavior. But in Hong Kong, divisive politics seem to have destroyed common decency.

Hundreds of school principals have condemned the posters, and reports say schools have rejected some internships for Education University undergraduates. Reports say some employers have even threatened never to hire anyone from the Education University. Some commentators said such harshness would further alienate Hong Kong’s young people.

But Hong Kong’s young should also know civilized societies have moral lines. Crossing those lines come with a cost. If there are no consequences, free speech will have no limits. The Court of Appeal was absolutely right when, in jailing three activists for storming government headquarters, it made clear a deterrence sentence was needed to discourage young people from violent law-breaking acts. Using posters to taunt Choi and Liu’s widow were not violent acts, but they were moral violence.

What makes this moral violence so disturbing is that those who put up the posters are likely Education University students who will become future teachers in our schools. Those in the student union, including its leader, who said the cold-hearted poster against Choi represented free speech will one day become teachers. Do you want your children to be taught by such people?

I can understand schools rejecting internships for the university’s undergraduates, and employers not wanting to hire anyone from the university. Yes, it is collective punishment. But if students at the university feel punishing everyone for the actions of a few is unfair, then the student union should condemn such behavior instead of condoning it as free speech.

Instead, the student union has accused the Education University of leaking security camera pictures of the pair who put up the poster mocking Choi. The university denied the claim but said it would not name the culprits when their identities are confirmed. Why not? I agree the issue should be handled solely by the university. The police, the government, and politicians have no role. But those who taunted Choi and Liu’s widow should be named and shamed. Not doing so will send a signal students can cross whatever moral boundaries with impunity.

Hong Kong’s young people already believe they can do whatever they want in the name of freedom. Many people blame Hong Kong’s unfair society, the greed of our property developers, the many failures of our government, especially in providing affordable housing, the loss of social mobility, and the heavy hand of Beijing for the anguish of our young people.

All that is true. Today’s young people have reason to be disillusioned. But I also blame teachers and professors in our schools and universities. Many have become overly politicized and are passing this on to their students. The hope is that our young will grow up to see things with two eyes instead of one. But I fear they have already been too brainwashed for that.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.

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