When Chinese University (CUHK) acted against its student union on national security grounds on Thursday, it was hard to imagine a time when the city’s student leaders enjoyed a cosy relationship with the authorities.
But in May 1967, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) student union joined hundreds of groups in supporting the colonial government to quell the riots instigated by the left wing.
The union passed a resolution that said: “We appeal to each and every Hong Kong citizen not to participate in any activities that may result in disturbing civic peace.
“We sincerely hope that any civic-minded person who feels as we do will rise up and join together in opposing any disruptive movement and uphold the peace.”
The communist-instigated riots claimed 51 lives, including 15 in bombings.
In the midst of the troubles, the HKU student union organised a “Miss HKU” beauty contest.
“The student union held the beauty pageant to send the community the message that it was ‘business as usual’ despite the political upheavals,” said Andrew Fung Ho-keung, chief executive of the think tank Hong Kong Policy Research Institute, who was editor-in-chief of the student magazine Undergrad in 1968.
Under his leadership, the union’s official publication became a platform for debate among student activists from various factions and earned a reputation for being critical of the government.
The early 1970s saw student bodies becoming more active in fighting for social justice, as well as spearheading calls to make Chinese one of the official languages of Hong Kong and defending China’s sovereignty over the disputed Diaoyu Islands.
Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, who was vice-president of the CUHK student union in 1987, recalled that from the 1970s, the local universities’ student unions developed a strong sense of mission and began challenging the colonial government.
The student unions of HKU and CUHK, the only two universities at the time, were among the first groups to back China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong, expressing their support in the early 1980s, well before the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in late 1984.
Beijing treasured their support, as most of the city’s business and professional elite had reservations about the central government’s ability to maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity after 1997.
In early 1984, the two unions wrote to then premier Zhao Ziyang saying they supported the handover and the call for democracy after 1997. Zhao, a key reformer, replied that it was “only right and proper” to adopt a democratic system in the city after 1997.
Beijing was tolerant even when Tsoi and others took the unusual step of staging a protest in Guangzhou in 1988. The group demanded a meeting with senior officials to oppose a conservative model for post-1997 electoral reform that the Basic Law Drafting Committee was considering.
Lu Ping, the committee’s deputy secretary general, accepted their petition and chatted briefly with them. In 1990, he became Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong when he arrived as director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.
The cordial relationship ended abruptly when the central government cracked down on student protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The bloody suppression drew condemnation from the two unions.
More recent years have seen Hong Kong student unions becoming more vocal on social and political issues, and calls for more democracy and reform. The result has been increased tension with Beijing.
Hong Kong’s student bodies were further alienated after Beijing made clear it would not allow an open contest for the position of the city’s chief executive.
In August 2014, the top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee ruled that only two or three candidates could be put to a public ballot in the 2017 race, and only after winning majority support from a 1,200-strong nominating committee likely to be dominated by Beijing loyalists.
The zero-risk model for the election showed the central government’s determination to ensure that the city leader would be someone acceptable to Beijing.
University student unions played an active part in the pro-democracy Occupy protests which paralysed parts of the city for 79 days in 2014.
In the end, there was no public voting for the city leader in 2017 and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was chosen in a contest decided by the Election Committee.
University student unions were in the thick of the action when anti-government protests broke out in 2019, triggered by an unpopular extradition bill that would have sent fugitives to the mainland. Although it was withdrawn, the unrest continued, became increasingly violent and affected university campuses too.
The national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing last June, banning acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to interfere in the city’s affairs, has had repercussions for student unions too.
At least five out of eight Hong Kong public universities could be left without a popularly elected student union as the arrests of leaders over the past year in connection with politically sensitive events have deterred others from leading student bodies.
Four universities – City University, Education University, Lingnan University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) – do not have enough students willing to form teams of so-called cabinets, to run in this year’s union elections.
In January, HKUST’s student union president and vice-president were suspended for holding a memorial last May amid the Covid-19 pandemic for student Alex Chow Tsz-lok who died after falling from a multistorey car park near a protest site in 2019.
The pair were accused of ignoring the university management’s warning concerning health risks and refusing to remove protest-related materials from campus notice boards.
Only CUHK, Baptist University and Polytechnic University produced the minimum of one cabinet each. At HKU, only one student stepped forward as a candidate and failed to get elected.
CUHK cited the national security law when it revealed on Thursday that it was cutting ties with its student union and imposing a raft of tough measures on the body, accusing its newly elected leadership team of spreading falsehoods and exploiting the campus for its political agenda.
At issue was the team’s 80-page manifesto which referred to the city government as the “Hong Kong communist regime”, accusing it of trying to “mainlandise” the city, and described the national security law as an affront to human rights, freedom and the dignity of Hong Kong people.
Though shocked by the university administration’s stern response, the union leadership team initially dug in its heels, insisting it would continue to deliver its election promises.
But it announced early on Saturday that it would withdraw its controversial manifesto as well as other statements made by candidates during the campaign.
Former CUHK student leader Richard Tsoi, a past vice-chairman of the Democratic Party and currently a community organiser of the Society for Community Organisation, a group fighting for grass-roots rights, said CUHK’s action was a manifestation of the attempt by Beijing and the Hong Kong government to crack down on civil society in the city.
You’ll never be old and wise if you weren’t young and crazy.