Chinese University Blocks Off 'Democracy Wall' as Student Union Disbands

Students say it is no coincidence that their ability to express their views has been restricted with the demise of their union.
By Lau Siu Fung
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Chinese University Blocks Off 'Democracy Wall' as Student Union Disbands Students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) hold black balloons and placards as they gather at the statue of the "Goddess of Democracy" at a protest, Hong Kong. Nov. 19, 2020.

Student union leaders at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) said they are disbanding the union, the latest in a line of civil society organizations to disappear amid a citywide crackdown on dissent under the national security law.

"For over half a century, the Student Union of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUSU) has gone through thick and thin, always standing side-by-side with the students and faculty of our university," the union said in an Oct. 7 statement on its Facebook page.

It said CUSU had always been an independent student organization whose representatives were elected through a democratic process.

"It is a matter of profound regret that CUSU is now history," it said, adding that the decision had been taken at a Sept. 10, 2021 meeting to discuss the matter.

The statement said the decision was triggered by the actions of the university, which severed ties with the union on Feb. 26, banning it from using university facilities or staff and accusing it of failing to clarify "potentially unlawful statements and false allegations."

University management had later insisted that CUSU re-register with the government, but Thursday's statement said the students had received legal advice that the laws in question didn't apply to them.

CUHK issued a statement claiming that it was legally appropriate to ask the union to register under the Societies Ordinance or the Companies Ordinance.

"The University believed that registration under the Societies or Companies Ordinance represented a well-established, legally mandated framework for the CUSU to continue," the university said.

"The University regrets that CUSU has elected an alternative course and has independently moved to dissolve its operations," it said.

A draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020 has targeted dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists for "subversion" after they organized a primary election in a bid to win more seats in the city's legislature.

The law bans words and deeds deemed subversive or secessionist, or any activities linked to overseas groups, as "collusion with foreign powers," including public criticism of the Hong Kong government and the CCP.

The dissolution comes after several organizations, including the group that ran the now-banned Tiananmen massacre vigils, protest march organizers the Civil Human Rights Front, the Professional Teachers' Union, and Wall-fare, a prison support group for those in custody because of the 2019 protest movement, have disbanded after being denounced by Hong Kong's leaders or CCP-backed media.

Former CUSU president and rights activist Johnson Yeung said CUSU had been a training ground in democratic processes for many generations of Hong Kong students.

"It's such a pity, and it's very worrying," Yeung told RFA. "CUSU was a very democratic organization, where students could discuss current affairs or social happenings at the university."

"I learned a lot there about many things including campus labor disputes, democratic movements and I connected with my fellow students," he said. "The loss of this space will mean lost opportunies to practise such things for the students who come after."

As the union announced its decision, campus management moved in to shut down CUHK's "Democracy Wall" poster area, posting a notice that it is being "temporarily suspended for improvement work," and placing steel barriers and security guards around it.

A CUHK student surnamed Lam said the message being sent to students was clear.

"The immediate closure of the Democracy Wall is a form of suppression," Lam said. "I don't think we are allowed [to express our opinions now], or if we do, they will be torn down."

A student surnamed Chan said the two events were clearly linked.

"No sooner had the student union disbanded than they put a fence round Democracy Wall," Chan said. "The moment student power weakened, students were immediately prevented from expressing their opinions."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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