17 October 2018
Universities will always be bastions of independent thinking and dissent. Photos: HKEJ, AFP, Bloomberg, Internet
Universities will always be bastions of independent thinking and dissent. Photos: HKEJ, AFP, Bloomberg, Internet

Why it’s impossible to keep politics out of university campuses

Recent incidents indicate that our universities are trying to stamp out the discussion of political issues on campuses as top leaders in Beijing seek to reform the education sector and instill patriotism among the youth.

The consequences of such efforts are dire as our campuses would lose their unique culture of diversity and the freedom of expression they enjoy. What the authorities want to happen is to stifle dissent and turn our students into “patriots” singing paeans to the Communist Party.

The most recent instance took place at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Local media on Wednesday reported that sociology professor Chan Kin-man, one of the convenors of the Occupy Movement, was told not to attend a post-screening discussion of a documentary about the 2014 civil disobedience campaign because school officials wanted to keep politics out of the campus.

Chan was reportedly told that the decision was made by the administration of the HKUST School of Humanities and Social Science.

Raise the Umbrellas is a documentary about the pro-democracy Occupy Movement, featuring interviews with key protest leaders such as Benny Tai, Martin Lee, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Emily Lau and Joshua Wong as well as cantopop singers Anthony Wong and Denise Ho.

There is no excuse for the school officials to stop the sharing session about the protest movement. Their decision is a clear attack on academic freedom, which is a sine qua non in the genuine pursuit of learning.

After central authorities and SAR officials have expressed concern over the emergence of localist sentiments on campuses, our school administrators have resorted to self-censorship to repress sensitive activities that may earn Beijing’s displeasure. 

In September, several local universities saw large yellow banners emblazoned with the words “I want genuine universal suffrage” inside their campuses. School officials had them taken down immediately.

At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, some mainland students removed posters declaring support for Hong Kong independence from the student union’s “democracy wall”, resulting in a standoff between them and other students.

Our universities are losing their independence, thanks to their administrators who appear too eager to please the powers that be and show their loyalty to Beijing in order to protect their own careers.

But universities will always be bastions of independent thinking, of dissent, and no amount of repression can remove this singular characteristic of an institution of learning.

In fact, university campuses have been playing a key role in historical events in China. It was the student protests after the death of Chinese leader Hu Yaobang that sparked the democracy movement that led to the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989.

In the early 1900s, students led the May Fourth Movement that paved the way for the rise of modern China.

Throughout history, students played a key role in political upheavals that led to tremendous changes. Politics simply cannot be removed from universities.

In Hong Kong, we will always remember the Occupy Movement, those 79 days of protests three years ago when more than a million people occupied the streets of Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok to press their demand for genuine universal suffrage in the election of the next chief executive. It was conceptualized by academics but ultimately launched and led by students.

Beijing did not budge. The students did not get what they fought for and their leaders found themselves behind bars. But the students have shown that they are a force to reckon with.

The flowering of democracy and change always takes place in the university. The students’ courage and commitment remain intact because they were forged in the academic freedom of campuses.

In fact, school administrators have the duty to protect and nurture that freedom, otherwise, they are betraying their profession.

We still remember the 10 university heads who signed a controversial joint statement condemning the abuses of freedom of expression. They also maintained that they do not support Hong Kong independence because it contravenes the Basic Law.

University of Hong Kong’s outgoing president Peter Mathieson explained his decision to sign the statement, saying he wanted to avoid “isolation” from other schools.

He said it was “totally wrong” and “mischievous” to suggest that he was saying that the discussion of Hong Kong independence was an abuse of freedom of expression.

Sadly, any discussion of Hong Kong independence is now banned on school campuses. Those who administer our universities have learned how to survive amid Beijing’s tightening grip on campuses.

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EJ Insight writer

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