On March 1, 2019, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) authorities expelled one student, suspended another for one year, and assigned two more to community service in apparent retaliation for their nonviolent expression on campus.
The events leading to the students’ expulsion began in September 2018, when the PolyU student union commemorated the fourth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement by converting a part of a “Democracy Wall” — a political bulletin board on campus — to a “Lennon Wall,” which had more relaxed guidelines on the content that could be posted. A Lennon Wall, named for John Lennon, is a public space where sometimes controversial political messages are posted. The first one had appeared in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1988, as a way of protesting the country’s communist leadership at the time; in September 2014, during the Umbrella movement, activists created a Lennon Wall with a mosaic of hundreds of colored post-it notes and posters, bearing political messages favoring democratic reform. The Lennon Wall at PolyU similarly contained political messages, including a banner supporting the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, which had recently been banned. After demanding that the controversial material be removed and student union members refused, the administration reportedly covered the materials deemed controversial with red paper, and attached a list of rules regarding what content was permitted on the wall.
This prompted roughly 10 students to go to the administration’s offices demanding an explanation on October 4, 2018. There, students and security personnel reportedly got into a confrontation and fell on the ground (it is not clear who was responsible for initiating physical violence) and students reportedly prevented two university officials from leaving their office. Students also conducted a 44-hour hunger strike until PolyU agreed to allow the student union to manage the wall. Apparently following the students meeting with the administration, the administration launched an internal investigation.
On March 1, PolyU reportedly sent letters to four students stating they had broken several rules including “defamation of, or assault on, or battery against, any staff member,” “refusal to comply with orders,” and “any conduct detrimental to the reputation and well being of the university.” PolyU expelled graduate student Gerald Ho, suspended former student union leader Lam Wing, ordered Owen Li, a student and elected member of the school’s governing council, to 120 hours of community service, and ordered Hazel Cheng, former external vice-president of the student union, to 60 hours of community service.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about disciplinary actions against students, including the expulsion of a student, in apparent retaliation for their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. State and university authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. At the same time, all parties involved in protest activities have a responsibility not to engage in or escalate violent or destructive activity. Disciplinary retaliation intended to punish expressive activity, as well as violence or destructive actions as part of or in response to a protest on campus, harm academic freedom and democratic society generally.