Students graduating from a Hong Kong university on Thursday protested shrinking freedoms since the 1997 handover to China, as a U.S. congressional report detailed growing interference from Beijing in the public life of the city.
The students waved banners at a graduation ceremony for the faculties of arts and social sciences the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK),
"Patriotism should be voluntary. No need to legislate!" read one banner, hitting out at a draft National Anthem Bill banning any form of "disrespect" to China's national anthem, the March of the Volunteers.
"Today the National Anthem Bill, tomorrow Article 23!" read another, in a reference to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's insistence that Hong Kong legislate against subversion and sedition under Article 23 of its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Students also called on their classmates to mourn the passing of Hong Kong as a bastion of freedom, citing the jailing of protest leaders in recent years.
CUHK student protester Cheung Jin-kiu told RFA that more than 20 students had stood up during the graduation ceremony.
"They wanted to use the ceremony in a more radical way to make demands to public figures," Cheung said. "It is also very distressing that the government, and the justice secretary, increased the sentences handed down to Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and others, even after they had been served."
Wong, Law and Alex Chow, were jailed in connection with their role in the 2014 pro-democracy movement. Wong is currently out on bail and barred from traveling overseas pending an appeal of a contempt of court conviction relating to police attempts to clear a major highway at the end of the 79-day disobedience campaign.
'Unreasonable in the extreme'
Some 1,000 people were arrested in connection with the 79-day Umbrella Movement during its existence, mostly for public order offenses like "unlawful assembly," "obstructing police," "assaulting officers," and "contempt of court.”
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said at the time that the arrest and jailing of peaceful Occupy Central protesters raised concerns about Hong Kong’s adherence to international human rights standards.
Cheung said the government's actions were "unreasonable in the extreme."
"That's why I took part in this action; to speak out for these political prisoners," he said.
"We are from the department of social work, where we were taught to care for the people, so that is what we wanted to express by doing this today."
Former Umbrella Movement leader Raphael Wong said students are also concerned that the provisions in the National Anthem Bill are "too vague," meaning that the authorities could interpret it very broadly on the ground.
"It could very well turn into a tool used by the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government, working in tandem, to suppress dissidents like us," Wong told RFA on Thursday.
"We have learned during our years in college that we actually have to defend our freedoms," Wong said. "We wanted to use this ritual to symbolize the fact that, on this day when we step out into the wider world, we are actually facing the suppression of our freedom of speech."
Meanwhile, a student surnamed Koh said the administration of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam had no interest in the rights and wrongs of its policies.
"Ultimately, they are always going to do whatever it is that tilts in mainland China's favor," he said.
Multiple challenges to freedom of expression
In Washington, the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission backed up the students' concerns, saying that "Beijing’s statements and legislative actions continue to run counter to China’s promise to uphold Hong Kong’s 'high degree of autonomy.'"
The report said challenges to freedom of speech and assembly had multiplied, as Beijing and the Hong Kong government "closed down the political space for pro-democracy activists to express discontent."
It cited the banning last month of the separatist Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) and the denial of a visa to Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet after he hosted an event featuring its leader, as well as the National Anthem Bill, as evidence of China's "undermining" of Hong Kong's legal autonomy.
Beijing and the Hong Kong government’s harsh criticism and attempted silencing of University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai for discussing potential futures for the city was also listed as a worrying development.
"The response also raised fears among pro-democracy advocates and academics that freedom of speech is increasingly at risk," the report said.
It called on U.S. trade officials to reassess its technology export protocols, which currently view Hong Kong separately from mainland China, and on members of Congress to participate in fact-finding trips to the city.
"They should also continue to express support for freedom of expression and rule of law in Hong Kong," it said.
The Hong Kong government rejected the report's findings, reiterating that there is "no room for discussing" independence for the city.
"The [Hong Kong] government attaches great importance to freedom of speech ... However, relevant international human rights convention and court cases have clearly pointed out that freedom of speech is not absolute," it said, without citing examples.
The statement hit out at the report's "biased conclusions and unfounded accusations," adding that "foreign legislatures should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs of [Hong Kong]."
Reported by Lee Wang-yam and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Jing Yuan and Chen Meihua for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.