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Thursday, Sep 24, 2020

Hong Kong University president Zhang Xiang dodges student ‘ultimatum’ to condemn police brutality in city’s ongoing unrest

He was responding to a petition signed by more than 2,600 students, staff and alumni last week, requesting he meet four demands by October 28. But he instead urged all parties to have a peaceful and rational exchange of views, causing the petitioners to consider further action

The head of Hong Kong University has dodged student and staff demands to condemn police brutality in the ongoing anti-government protests by instead voicing his opposition to “any form of violence by any party”.

Responding to a petition signed by more than 2,600 students, staff and alumni last week, HKU president Zhang Xiang on Monday avoided making any statement about the police force and instead called for a peaceful resolution to the city’s unrest.

“We urgently need an exchange of views in a peaceful and rational manner and HKU must be able to serve this purpose,” he said.

“Most important of all, I care about the safety and well-being of our students and it is our moral obligation and pastoral care role to understand and help them.”

The petition set a deadline of October 28 for Zhang to respond to four demands: for the president to issue a statement to condemn “police brutality”, provide concrete assistance to arrested students, hold a forum to listen to students’ concerns, and promise not to permit police searches on campus.

Submitted last Tuesday by a group of about 100 students and alumni to HKU’s vice-president Ian Holliday, the petition put forward an “ultimatum for university management and president Zhang Xiang”, or actions might escalate.

The HKU stand-off followed Chinese University president Rocky Tuan Sung-chi who, after facing pressure from students at an open dialogue on October 10, said in an open letter earlier this month that he would condemn police for “any proven case” of brutality – the first varsity head to do so.

Zhang, however, insisted he and the HKU senior management had met students involved in the protests, reached out to some of their parents, and already explained the school’s “principles and practice” about police entering university property.

School management held discussions with students “at various occasions in different manners” and will continue to do so, he wrote in his letter.

“The SMT [Senior Management Team] and I believe that ongoing engagement with students is very important.”
Both the HKU student union and the petition’s organiser said they were discussing further action after receiving Zhang’s letter, without elaborating further.

Zhang previously met students in a forum in July amid questions over his statement condemning “destructive acts” by protesters who stormed the Legislative Council complex on July 1. He said he was “against all kinds of violence” at the July forum.

Other university heads have also shied away from explicitly condemning police brutality, despite the Chinese University president’s position. Some told the Post last week they would instead “condemn violence in any form”, while others dodged the question or did not reply.

Tuan’s letter drew criticism from police groups and former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who slammed it for “setting a bad precedent”.

The heads of eight university councils also responded by saying campuses were not “battlegrounds for the resolution of political issues”, and should not be drawn into supporting any particular position.

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