On February 25, 2021, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) effected a series of punitive actions against the university’s student union, apparently based on political views and criticism of the university administration expressed by a group of candidates running for the student union cabinet, known as Syzygia.
According to an announcement on CUHK’s website, the university moved to suspend its practice of collecting student union fees on behalf of the union; require the union to register as an independent society or company and assume its own legal responsibility; suspend certain members of the union’s executive committee from their ex-officio positions in all CUHK committees; and withhold CUHK’s administrative support to the union’s executive committee and the provision of venues for its activities.
In their announcement, CUHK’s administration alleged that Syzygia made potentially “unlawful remarks,” apparently referring to candidates’ comments about “national security matters,” and made “false allegations against [CUHK].” Before the election, Syzygia published a statement claiming that CUHK was “bowing” to the government and had worked with the police to arrest students in connection with an incident on campus in which security guards were hit with an unknown white substance. Syzygia members had also issued a manifesto that criticized the National Security Law, a sweeping law imposed on Hong Kong by China’s Central Government in June 2020 that has had far-reaching consequences for academia and civil society in and outside Hong Kong. According to CUHK, the student union cabinet “failed to clarify the potentially unlawful statements and false allegations despite repeated cautioning and advice.”
On February 27, Syzygia announced on social media that it had withdrawn its election-related manifesto, in addition to removing all previous statements, from its online platform. But in a press conference held two days later, cabinet members announced their resignation from the student union, saying that they had lost their mandate after withdrawing the manifesto. They also cited death threats and harassment they and and their family members were subjected to following the university’s announcement to cut ties with the union.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about sanctions on a student union and its members, apparently intended to restrict or retaliate against nonviolent political expression and criticism of university leadership. University authorities must refrain from retaliating against nonviolent expression so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, punishment aimed at restricting or retaliating against such expression undermines academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.