Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow: A Look at Hong Kong University Presidents and Their Support for Student Protestors
by Susan Blumberg-Kason
In May 2014, my Chinese University of Hong Kong alumni group welcomed then-CUHK President Joseph Sung to a dinner reception in Chicago. At our dinner, President Sung spoke bluntly about the disconnection between young people in Hong Kong and the government under CY Leung. I remember feeling shocked—in a good way—by his honesty. I didn’t think he would want to discuss such matters with a group of alums who lived half a world away from Hong Kong. But I wasn’t the only one at the dinner who came away with these thoughts. President Sung left a warm impression on all of us.
Four months later, Hong Kong students, academics, and religious leaders took to the streets to begin Occupy Central With Love and Peace. This was late September of 2014 and my husband and I had already made plans—even before President Sung visited Chicago—to travel to Hong Kong in mid-October that year.
Occupy was a couple weeks old when we landed. Dozens of my friends in Hong Kong felt sympathetic to the protestors and some took us to see Occupy. It was breathtaking and the most peaceful and cooperative demonstration I’d ever seen.
This wasn’t the Hong Kong I knew back in 1990-91 when I was an undergraduate exchange student at CUHK, or in 1994 when I started my master’s degree in government and public administration, also at CUHK. Hong Kong saw massive protests back then on June 4th since Tiananmen had occurred so recently and because Hong Kong was less than a decade away from the Handover. But a prolonged, mass sit-in like Occupy just didn’t seem feasible in 1990s Hong Kong. (The stage wouldn’t be set until 2003 when half a million people marched against the government’s mishandling of the SARS epidemic and an anti-sedition law in accordance with Article 23 of the Basic Law, which lead to Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa stepping down. Mass protests occurred again during the 2012 sit-ins against a national education curriculum.)
In 2014, President Sung and University of Hong Kong President Peter Mathieson went down to Occupy to speak to the students camping out in Admiralty. They supported the students and sent letters to alums and others in the university community, hoping for safety yet addressing the desire for peace and how Occupy was a non-violent act of civil disobedience. It should also be noted that two professors from CUHK and the University of Hong Kong—Chan Kin-man and Benny Tai, respectively—served jail time for organising the original sit-in that sparked Occupy in 2014.
A few years after Occupy, CUHK students, faculty, and alums received another notice from Joseph Sung, this one stating that he would be stepping down to re-focus on his medical career. He also claimed he had no interest in politics. The CUHK community was shocked and surprised. But by the time Sung left CUHK, his popularity had waned a bit as he warned students to listen to other points of view when advocating for a better future in Hong Kong. Sung claimed he always had the students’ best interests at heart, whether going down to Occupy or advising them to seek their own solutions to the growing inequality gap (notwithstanding the fact that they have almost no voting rights when it comes to choosing political candidates, including the Chief Executive).
During the summer of 2019 protests, Chinese University of Hong Kong students, faculty, and alums heard very little from Rocky Tuan, the new President of CUHK. In one e-mail in mid-June, President Tuan—who grew up in Hong Kong, as did Sung—advised the students to put their safety first and seemed lukewarm about the validity of the protests. The tone of his letter implied he wished the contention would just go away. After weeks of escalating demonstrations, police pushback, and government silence, President Tuan’s reticence seemed deafening. He finally came out with another memo on 5 July, asking for a meeting of both sides to work out their differences. Tuan wrote:
I suggest the expeditious establishment of a platform acceptable to a large cross-section of the society for the purpose of enabling constructive and effective dialogues between the government and citizens from different age groups, social backgrounds, and political persuasions.—Rocky Tuan, President of the Chinese University of Hong Kong
But Tuan’s leadership came shining through in October 2019 when he sat down with students. And his engagement with—and tear-gassing by—riot police a month later on the CUHK campus erased past criticism. Tuan was named one of the most influential academics in 2019 by Times Higher Education for his support of the students during the 2019 unrest. He has also faced sharp criticism from the Hong Kong establishment and was hospitalised for several days at the end of 2019. It was said he suffered from the teargas, but it wouldn’t be surprising if stress and exhaustion caused this prolonged hospital stay.
Tuan has every right to worry about the future. At the University of Hong Kong, President Peter Mathieson came under scrutiny a year after Occupy when the university blocked his appointment of Johannes Chan to become the pro-vice-chancellor. (University presidents in Hong Kong also hold the title of vice chancellor, so Chan would have served under Mathieson). The government and pro-Beijing media put pressure on the HKU search committee to block Chan’s appointment, viewing him as too supportive of Occupy and human rights. Mathieson’s leadership was questioned and because of this he left HKU two years before his term ended.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Mathieson’s departure was his disclosure that he met with Beijing liaison officials in Hong Kong “all the time.” He claimed this was true of all university presidents in Hong Kong, which should be alarming because Article 137 of the Basic Law guarantees autonomy and academic freedom to all academic institutions.
Mathieson’s successor, Zhang Xiang, is the first mainland-born university president in Hong Kong. He also caused controversy on 3 July 2019 in a letter to the HKU community, in which he condemned the protestors’ storming of the Legislative Council two days earlier on the 22nd anniversary of the Handover. Zhang wrote that he was “disheartened by the violence that occurred in the Legislative Council building and would like to condemn such destructive acts.” He received much pushback from the HKU community and claimed he was new to Hong Kong and didn’t understand the situation there. (Zhang has been president of HKU since July 2018.) Zhang ended up taking back his denunciation and promised to protect students if the police came to campus and tried to arrest them without warrants. He also agreed to a public forum for the greater HKU community and the media.
Hong Kong Polytechnic named a new president in July 2019, Teng Jinguang, also mainland-born. But when riot police entered the campus in November 2019, engaging in an almost two-week-long battle with students, Teng was mysteriously absent during the first day of the siege. Early on the second day, he released a video, backtracking on his disappearance when his students needed him the most.
Other current university presidents in Hong Kong have appeared more sympathetic to student protestors. Baptist University’s Roland Chin wrote passionately to his students, faculty, and alums on 9 July 2019:
I have never been so heavy-hearted. In the last few weeks, I saw the largest crowds of peaceful protesters hitting the streets, many of them youngsters and parents, some for the first time. I saw hopelessness, fear and anger. Most recently, I saw desperation, violence, and hatred.—Roland Chin, President of Hong Kong Baptist University
A paragraph later, he wrote, “It is also universities’ responsibility to advance society and give young people hope.”
Like Tuan at CUHK, Chin proposed opening a dialogue, but spelled out his plans more concretely, stressing that those coming to the table to discuss the problems in Hong Kong “should not be government officials, politicians, or those deeply entrenched in their own political views.” He viewed these talks as town halls and/or focus groups, each with a particular theme to create an overarching forum. A month later, in early August 2019, Baptist University Student Union President Keith Fong was arrested for bringing innocuous laser pointers to a protest in Tsim Sha Tsui, where the government sponsors a touristy laser show each night at 8pm. Chin called on the Hong Kong government to treat students fairly after Fong was arrested with something as benign as a laser pointer. Yet, students chased after Chin as he was leaving a forum to discuss Fong’s arrest. (Fong was later released and received no charges, but students are still furious about his arrest nonetheless.)
In late November 2019, Chin announced he would retire in August 2020, at the end of his five-year term.
The only university president in Hong Kong to visit a protest site off campus in 2019—and the first since Sung and Mathieson visited Occupy in 2014—occurred on 27 July when Lingnan University President Leonard Cheng talked to students demonstrating in Yuen Long. (A week earlier violence erupted in Yuen Long as triads beat protesters returning home from a demonstration over an hour away.) President Cheng stayed at the protest for about thirty minutes. The students were thrilled. Violence broke out later that evening, after Cheng had left, but this time at the hands of the police.
Education University of Hong Kong President Stephen Cheung met with students on campus for two and a half hours on 9 August 2019, comparing the protests in Hong Kong to the yellow vest movement in France. He spoke of French president Macron meeting with citizens for seven hours a week, weeks on end. “Social problems must be addressed through dialogue, communication, and listening,” he told students. After the meeting, the students weren’t completely placated, especially because Cheung said he wouldn’t be attending a protest in Tai Po, where the university is located.
Hong Kong has eight publicly-funded universities and these presidents issued a joint communiqué to students just before the 2019-2020 academic year began. In it they stated that they “want to make the strongest plea to you to stay away for your personal safety. Please take good care of yourselves.” University presidents like Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Wei Shyy and City University’s Way Kuo have asked the government to set up inquiries into their handling of the chaos caused by the extradition bill. Carrie Lam and the pro-Beijing lawmakers have been unresponsive.
Now that Beijing has imposed a national security law for Hong Kong, bypassing the Hong Kong legal system, the eight presidents have issued another joint communiqué. On 1 June 2020, these eight university presidents supported the national security law. The law would allow anyone in Hong Kong to be tried in China for speaking out against the state with the possibility of life imprisonment on the mainland if found guilty.
University World News reported the language of the university presidents’ communiqué: “As residents of Hong Kong, we enjoy the protection provided by the state, and in turn have a reciprocal obligation to protect the state by supporting the introduction of legislation which prohibits criminal acts that threaten the existence of the state. We therefore support the national security laws which will operate under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, to better ensure universities can continue to create knowledge through research and learning.”
Before Beijing imposed the national security law, Hong Kong students were willing to face 10 years of jail time—in Hong Kong—to give their generation the same opportunities their parents enjoyed in the 1980s and 90s and to make sure their government was held accountable. They weren’t asking for more than they were promised, which included Article 137 of the Basic Law, or the right of academic institutions in Hong Kong to enjoy academic freedom and autonomy. Now university students don’t have the protection of the Basic Law, among other entities, including their own universities.
As Nelson Mandela once said, “The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.”
Photograph © Susan Blumberg-Kason.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)