Students graduating in Hong Kong have once more used a ceremony to protest eroding freedoms in the city, speaking out against the ongoing trial of two scholars and a priest for "inciting" the 2014 pro-democracy movement.
"The Nine are innocent!" some students shouted at the graduation ceremony at Lingnan University chaired by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam on Thursday, in a reference to the ongoing trial of nine pro democracy activists and politicians on public order charges.
The three activists who initiated the 2014 Umbrella movement – law professor Benny Tai, retired sociology professor Chan Kin-man, and reverend Chu Yiu-ming -- face one count each of conspiracy to cause public nuisance, inciting others to cause public nuisance, and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance.
Former student federation leaders Tommy Cheung and Eason Chung, League of Social Democrats vice-chairman Raphael Wong, and lawmakers Tanya Chan and Shiu Ka-chun face two counts of inciting others to cause a public nuisance, while former Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat faces one count.
All nine defendants have pleaded not guilty, and the trial – which has been criticized by British MPs -- is currently adjourned until next week.
Meanwhile, some students appeared in mourning clothes, while others tied their hands to mimic handcuffs, and indicate a "prison" for freedom of speech.
Students also held up banners and shouted slogans protesting Lam's special status as the chancellor of the university -- former colonial governors and post-handover chief executives of Hong Kong are automatically chancellor of the city's public universities.
"Defend freedom at our college!" some shouted. "No to a puppet chancellor!"
One graduating student unfurled a banner that read "Don't [expand] Lantau [Island]" in English and Chinese, in a reference to a controversial reclamation project that would create artificial islands off the island.
Some graduates shouted their slogans directly at Lam. Protesters were immediately removed from the venue by college security.
Currying favor with authority
But university president Leonard Cheng hit out at "freedom of speech," in his address to graduates at the ceremony, saying that some people had used it as an excuse to "challenge the political order of Hong Kong."
"If you take any discussion seriously, you must respect everyone involved in the discussion, otherwise the message you want to express may be lost in anger," Cheng warned the graduates.
But fresh graduate Yip Tze-yeung said Cheng's speech was highly political, and intended to curry favor with Lam and her administration, which has publicly criticized anyone who discusses the idea of independence for Hong Kong in public.
"Of course, Cheng has the right to say what he thinks, and it's up to him if he wants to twist words like that," he said.
Yip called for a dialogue between protesting graduates, who also distributed pamphlets on campus on the day of the ceremony, and Lam.
"We hope that there will be a space for dialogue, so that we can get more people to understand [our points]," he said.
Protest organizer Lam Siu-wai said students want the university to revise its rulebook to end a system under which the government can monitor the content of courses taught at the college.
She said that since Cheng had expressed public support for Lam's Lantau Island reclamation project, on-campus protests against the plan had been shut down.
"Some students started a petition against the East Lantau reclamation project recently with no problem, but after Leonard Cheng expressed his support ... the same students were prevented from carrying [their campaign] on campus," she said.
"They basically told them to shut up. So we can see that freedom of speech is already eroding at Lingnan University," she said.
Carrie Lam made no response to the students' protest, while Lingnan University called the protests "deeply regrettable."
It said the university chancellor had been elected according to its regulations.
Reported by Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.