Hong Kong: Authorities Must Exercise Restraint and End Violent Sieges on Universities

Posted November 20, 2019

Scholars at Risk (SAR) is gravely concerned about a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on Hong Kong’s university campuses, and calls on government and university authorities to take immediate steps to de-escalate violence and to ensure the safety and well-being of all those involved.

SAR has reviewed distressing reports by media and human rights groups of violent force by police against students and other protesters on the campuses of Hong Kong’s major universities since November 11. These include reports of police encircling campuses and firing water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and sponge bombs at protesters, some of whom defended themselves by erecting blockades and throwing gas bombs, rocks, and other items in return. By November 17, tensions escalated dramatically when police laid siege to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and violently clashed with protesters. Sources indicate that police repeatedly fired tear gas at those attempting to escape the besieged campus, including journalists and medical volunteers who had been aiding injured protesters. Disturbing video footage and media reports indicate that police physically abused and harassed a number of protesters that were being taken into custody.

While an official accounting is unavailable, SAR understands that many hundreds of protesters and others suffered injuries and that as many as one thousand individuals had been arrested as of November 19. Those arrested on charges of “rioting” may face up to ten years in prison if convicted. Universities have further announced the suspension of on-campus academic activities through the remainder of the term.

Student expression, academic freedom, and institutional autonomy are cornerstones of healthy universities and democratic society. In Hong Kong, however, SAR has seen an increase in threats to these values amidst the growing influence of the Chinese Communist Party over government institutions and universities in the region. Hong Kong government and higher education leaders have a vested interest in protecting and promoting healthy universities and democratic society, including especially by ensuring the rights of students, scholars, and others to engage in critical inquiry and dissent, on and off campus. While state authorities have a responsibility to maintain order and safety, they must exercise restraint and refrain from all actions that endanger protesters and threaten university autonomy. Beyond the harm to protesters and others involved, the use of violent, excessive force escalates tensions and incites, rather than abates, violent activity.

SAR urgently calls on all parties, especially government and university authorities, to take immediate steps to de-escalate violence and ensure the safety and well-being of all persons connected with the demonstrations. SAR calls on Hong Kong government authorities to ensure a thorough, independent investigation of the police response to protest activities, to ensure the due process rights of all persons under investigation or in proceedings arising out of the protests, and to ensure the well-being of those in custody, including by guaranteeing access to legal counsel, medical treatment, and family. SAR further calls on governments and higher education officials in and outside Hong Kong to reject the use of force over reason and discourse, and to commit to safeguarding critical inquiry and dissent.