Hong Kong's Establishment Strikes Back at Protesting Students

china-arthurli-jan2816.jpg HKU council chairman Arthur Li speaks at a press conference in Hong Kong, Jan. 28, 2016.

Key figures in Hong Kong's political establishment hit out on Thursday at recent protests by students at the city's prestigious University of Hong Kong (HKU), using rhetoric similar to that of Beijing when faced with the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement of 2014.

Arthur Li, the controversially appointed chairman of the HKU council, said that students who protested outside the council's last meeting on Tuesday night were being poisoned and manipulated by others, and were similar to people "on drugs."

Li, who is a serving member of chief executive Leung Chun-ying's cabinet, the Executive Council, was speaking two days after being besieged in a building on the HKU campus after it was surrounded by hundreds of students calling for him to come out and talk with them.

"I am very clear about the motivations of a small minority of students, about their standpoint, and that they are well-meaning," Li said. "But they are like people on drugs, who do irrational things under their influence."

"Of course we would blame such a person, but we should also be clear about who it is who is supplying the students with this 'drug'," Li said.

Li accused pan-democratic politicians, including the Civic Party, for fueling the protests and a week-long class boycott, which came amid growing public fears that behind-the-scenes pressure from Beijing was influential in the council's decision to reject the candidacy of liberal scholar Johannes Chan for the post of pro-vice-chancellor last year.

Leaked audio recordings of council meetings revealed that Li played a key role in the rejection of Chan for the job.

Academic independence

Students and academics have expressed concern at the level of government involvement in the day-to-day running of HKU, saying the current arrangements are a threat to the academic independence of the university.

While the council has said it will review its structure in time, the students are calling for immediate changes and for a dialogue with Li, who responded instead by singling out some of the protest leaders for public criticism.

"There was a student called Yvonne Leung who called all the students out on a class boycott, but the Civic Party was behind the scenes, manipulating things, because Johannes Chan hadn't got the job they wanted him to get," Li said.

"The Civic Party and the other pan-democrats have been on the sidelines, inciting the the students to riot," Li said.

Li said he was happy to meet with any students at any time.

"I'm just not going to come out and meet with you when you are holding a metaphorical gun to my head."

Li also took aim at HKU student union president Billy Fung, who he described as a "spin doctor," accusing him of disseminating false information to the media.

"He promised to maintain confidentiality when he was at the meeting [with officials], and then he went out and immediately held a press conference at which he leaked all of the content of the meeting," Li said. "

"He also told the students that we weren't planning to set up a review panel [to look into reforming the council structure] when the council voted unanimously ... to set one up," Li said.

Footage handed over

Meanwhile, HKU vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson, who has said the students' protest amounted to 'mob rule,' has agreed to hand over security camera footage of the protests to police, sparking criticism from pan-democratic legislator Audrey Eu.

"Mathieson should be siding with the students, who are worried about the institution's autonomy," Eu told government broadcaster RTHK on Thursday, calling on senior academics to take action to resolve the standoff.

I call upon all the other deans and ... senior lecturers the students can trust, please, come out and act as some kind of mediation, and try to resolve and understand the difficulties," Eu said.

"They are legitimate concerns at the end of the day. You should not treat them as mobs, and criminals," said Eu, who is also a member of the HKU Alumni Concern Group. "That's not the way to treat students."

Police are investigating the protests after Mathieson said the students’ behavior had put the safety of council members at serious risk, and amid reports of minor damage to university property, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

The protests come amid growing fears that Beijing has no intention of respecting Hong Kong's traditional freedoms of expression, including the city's pluralistic political scene and once freewheeling press and publishing industry.

Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms and a "high degree of autonomy."

But the recent "disappearance" of five men connected to a bookstore selling political books banned in mainland China, two of whom are in police custody across the internal border, sent shock waves through the city, sparking street protests.

Chinese officials have so far declined to explain how the men, one of whom, Gui Minhai, is a Swedish national detained on holiday in Thailand, and one of whom, Lee Bo, holds a British passport, reached China in the first place.

Unanswered questions

While Chinese officials have said Lee is in China, "assisting in an investigation," there are many other questions still unanswered.

"The questions are: where exactly is Lee Bo? Why can't he come out and speak? How did he get back to China? Why can't he come back to Hong Kong?" pan-democratic legislator and veteran rights activist Leung Kwok-hung told RFA in a recent interview.

"So far, we don't have any answers, but if he isn't being held under criminal detention, he should be able to leave China whenever he chooses," Leung said after meeting earlier this week with a delegation of U.K. members of parliament in Hong Kong to ask similar questions.

Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok called for the immediate release of all five men linked to Causeway Bay Books.

"The only way to make calm things down is to release the Causeway Bay Five at once, including Lee Bo, Gui Minhai, and the others," Kwok told RFA. "And if illegal methods were used to get them there, then the central government needs to give us an explanation."

“I will say once again, that when people break the law in Hong Kong, mainland Chinese law enforcement have no jurisdiction."

Reported by Ho Si-yuen for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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