SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: January 25, 2021

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | Hong Kong 

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On January 25, 2021, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) suspended two students for organizing a memorial event commemorating the life of a student who died after falling from a parking garage near the site of a student protest.

Starting in April 2019, Hong Kong was engulfed in protests, first sparked by controversial legislation (later withdrawn) and, over time, in response to the leadership of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam; excessive force and other actions of the Hong Kong police; and concerns that democratic society is shrinking in Hong Kong. Students and other young Hong Kongers, including secondary school students, were at the forefront of the largely peaceful protest movement.

On November 4, 2019, HKUST student Alex Chow Tsz-lok fell from the third floor of a parking garage during police intervention at a protest. On November 8, news broke that Chow had died, and the following day, thousands attended a vigil to mourn Chow’s death.

In May 2020, the HKUST Student Union held a memorial on campus to mark the six months since Chow’s death.

On January 25, 2021, HKUST suspended Donald Mak Ka-chun, the president of the student union, and Lo Kai-ho, the vice president of the student union, for one semester for holding the memorial during the COVID-19 pandemic and refusing to remove protest materials from campus notice boards and a campus path. The protest slogan painted on a campus path was “hope lies in the people; change begins with resistance.” HKUST warned the student union leaders that they would be expelled for any further violations. HKUST issued letters to Mak, Lo, and four other student union members, barring them from athletic facilities and amenities for the semester and ordering them to serve 75 hours of community service. Mak responded to the alleged violations by stating that the student union enforced strict social distancing measures at the memorial, including providing temperature checks and hand sanitizer to attendees.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about disciplinary actions against students in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom, 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 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Hong Kong is a party. University authorities should refrain from retaliating against expressive activity, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, suspensions and disciplinary actions aimed at restricting or retaliating against such activity undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.