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Monday, April 19, 2021, 10:09
HKU Student Union's Open Letter is symptomatic of university mismanagement
By Tony Kwok
Monday, April 19, 2021, 10:09 By Tony Kwok

At the early stage of the violent social unrest in Hong Kong in 2019, I was teaching an international class in the Hong Kong University SPACE comprising students who were senior representatives from different anti-corruption agencies around the world. I recalled that on one occasion, I received an urgent call to evacuate the class for safety reasons as the campus was under siege by violent students who had started to vandalize the university’s MTR station. I subsequently returned to the campus and was horrified to see the extent of damage caused to the campus, with graffiti all over the campus calling for “Revolution for Hong Kong Independence”, “Down with the communist party”, etc. My students were utterly amazed that this could have happened to such a world-renowned university, once Asia’s finest. I was too embarrassed and at a loss for words to explain to my students about what had just happened. They would undoubtedly be carrying this terrible impression back to their home countries, bringing disrepute to an otherwise highly respected institution of higher learning and shame to Hong Kong.

I am therefore completely outraged by the recent Open Letter from the HKU Student Union to the Vice Chancellor, in which they objected to the launching of national security education in the university and used derogatory terms in accusing the Vice Chancellor of “collusion”; “puppet” and “bending over to the wolves of tyranny” etc. The letter displays a level of gratuitous contempt unheard of by university student representatives.

But is it really inappropriate to introduce mandatory national security education at universities? Firstly, the students should appreciate that their university education is largely funded by the public purse to the tune of about HK$1 million (US$128,672) per student, depending on the course. Thus, the society has a right to expect a suitable return for such a massive investment in terms of the graduates serving the public and protecting their interests. It goes without saying that these future leaders should first of all learn how to secure the larger interest of the society and to be patriotic as a first step. As potential future teachers, they are also entrusted with the vital mission of passing on such important correct concepts to their students.

Secondly, the students should know that it was their own anti-social activities in the past that triggered the need for imposing national security education. Despite the “red line” set by President Xi Jinping that “any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty is an act that crosses the line, and is absolutely impermissible in Hong Kong”, HKU Student Union has repeatedly turned a deaf ear to such warning. Instead, it has turned itself into a subversive base, publishing pro-Hong Kong independence articles in their student magazines, and used the annual inauguration ceremonies to advocate Hong Kong independence. They continued to display on their bulletin boards in the campus urging revolution for Hong Kong independence, and describing Beijing as a “foreign tyranny government”. All these eventually escalated into violent street riots in 2019, when the university campus was turned into a terrorist base, blocking the main road outside it for weeks, and causing huge damage to the campus requiring millions of dollars to repair. Many of their students were subsequently arrested and prosecuted for riot related offences, and sentenced to jail. The radical students brought it all on themselves while causing massive collateral damage and eventually forcing the introduction of mandatory national security education.

The university management have themselves to blame for provoking such an egregiously disrespectful letter from their student union. All these years, they have taken a docile and overly tolerant attitude in dealing with extremist student behavior. At most, they would respond with anodyne admonitions using words like “regret”, “inappropriate” and “unnecessary”, never stating in unequivocal terms what they would not permit on campus, or taking appropriate disciplinary action. At one time, they even allowed discussion of Hong Kong independence on campus as long as it is conducted “rationally and nonviolently”. It was left to the Chief Executive to condemn the university’s cowardly stand!

On this occasion, the University management should in no uncertain terms demand the withdrawal of the open letter and condemn its abusive language. If this is not complied with, it must dissolve the student council paving the way for its re-election. This also presents the university the opportunity to examine the background of the student union council members and their actions in the violent social unrest of 2019. If they were found to have committed infraction of student rules, disciplinary action must be taken against them, even if belatedly. The university management needs to recast its image as a firm but fair enforcer of rules and order.

The pain and damage radical students inflicted on our society only reinforces my belief that national security education in universities is absolutely necessary. It should also include modern Chinese history highlighting the country’s remarkable achievements in the past 30 years. An enhanced program of learning about China should include a visit to the Mainland. The passing an end-of-term written examination on National Security and China knowledge should become a prerequisite for their graduation. When you consider that Hong Kong citizens emigrating to the United States are expected to pass a test on US knowledge and patriotism before being granted citizenship, such requirements of our undergraduates should be the bare minimum!

With the introduction of the National Security Law, it is appropriate for the university to revise its code of conduct for staff and students. It should come out with a strong statement of zero tolerance over any disrespectful or unpatriotic behavior. The code of conduct can take reference from the “Standards of Ethical Conduct” of UC Berkeley, the university where the current Vice Chancellor has previously served. The code emphasized that students must take “individual responsibility and accountability”, “respect for others”, “compliance with laws and regulations” and “proper use of university resources”. Hence the student union should take individual responsibility and accountability for its most disrespectful open letter; must comply with the National Security Law, particularly its article 10 which states that national security education should be promoted in all universities. In other words, HKU would be breaching the NSL for failing to promote national security education, and the debate of whether it should be held must stop.

Indeed, I propose that all incoming new students should sign a sworn statement declaring allegiance to the Basic Law and compliance with NSL. This requirement should apply to all teaching staff as well.

The HKU management should also review the current system of electing council members to the Student Union. The system is patently faulty as it somehow favors those candidates championing extremist anti-establishment platforms. The management should adopt the Central Government’s determination in improving the election system of the Legislative Council. One possibility is to have half of the council members elected and the other half filled by top academic students in different streams. They are likely to be more sensible than those radical students who dominate student union activities.

If the students do not want to attend the national security education studies, or do not want to be patriotic, they can always quit the university and join the private universities, or study overseas instead. There are thousands of patriotic student candidates ready and willing to take their places.

The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space, a council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies and a former deputy commissioner of ICAC.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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