by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: AP
A SHOWDOWN OF posters at the “Democracy Wall” of the Chinese University of Hong Kong is illustrative of the future contentions which will shape Hong Kong politics going forward, as well as how relatively small acts can come to take on great political significance in a period of highly charged political tension in Hong Kong. After the appearance of banners and posters on campus earlier this month expressing support of Hong Kong independence, a video of a female student tearing down pro-independence posters went viral. This has led to pro-Hong Kong independence protesters to take to guarding their posters on campus, and pro-China protesters to take to tearing down Hong Kong independence posters and posting their own posters claiming that Hong Kong is intrinsically a part of China.
Notably, the video of the female student tearing down posters, when confronted, the student responds in Mandarin and English and not Cantonese, and when pro-independence students suggest that she place her own posters against independence on the “Democracy Wall” rather than tear down theirs, she refuses. Likewise, many of the anti-independence posters which have appeared as of late are written, in fact, in simplified Chinese. Nevertheless, to the criticism of student groups such as the Chinese University of Hong Kong Student Union, this has not prevented the school administration from directly intervening to remove pro-independence posters and Ronny Tong, a member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council, for suggesting that students advocating Hong Kong independence be persecuted. Namely, under Hong Kong law, advocacy of separatism can be construed as treason.
The “Democracy Wall” at the Chinese University of Hong Kong is one of a number of public spaces at Hong Kong universities that serve as free speech zones where students can paste posters with their personal views. Democracy Walls also exist at the City University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong. During the Umbrella Movement, the “Lennon Wall” served a similar role in the Admiralty encampment.
This would not be the first time in which public controversy has broken out regarding Chinese students tearing down posters at Democracy Walls calling for greater autonomy for Hong Kong, a similar video having gone viral in 2015. But present events are significant because they mark that Hong Kong independence is a political position with a growing support base among Hong Kong youth, having been a fringe idea proposed by few during even among the leading figures of the Umbrella Movement, and tension between Hong Kong students and Chinese students studying in Hong Kong. Furthermore, with the sharp deterioration in political freedoms in Hong Kong since then, with the barring of legislative candidates or invalidation of legislators if their views conflict with the Chinese government and the imprisonment of student activists, the issue is that much more politically charged at present.
Consequently, banners supporting Hong Kong independence have appeared at other universities such as the University of Hong Kong, the Education University of Hong Kong, and Baptist University, and similar wars between pro-independence and anti-independence signs have taken place. Students at Chinese University of Hong Kong also took to taking shifts to guard pro-independence signs to prevent them from being torn down before the university intervened to remove them.
Indeed, many campuses worldwide have free speech areas which become a site for political contention between student groups, such as campus bulletin boads. Usually such political debates remain confined to campus. However, in an increasingly authoritarian Hong Kong, the issue has taken on significance for all of Hong Kong, seeing as when Hong Kong universities take such measures to restrict the free speech of their students in an academic setting, this may be a sign of more broad-ranging future restrictions on all of Hong Kong society.
Will it be that even putting up posters in college campuses can lead to criminal charges in present day Hong Kong? With the imprisonment of Hong Kong youth activists, including leading figures of the Umbrella Movement, in a series of incidents seen as the Hong Kong government taking its first political prisoners, the Hong Kong government has already demonstrated that it has little compunction imprisoning young people for their political beliefs. We shall see going forward, then, as to whether this is so. If so, dark times may be ahead for Hong Kong.