In the wake of the internationally-condemned jailing of former student leaders of Hong Kong’s 2014 student movement, including an elected legislator Nathan Law, academics who were active in the movement have become the latest target.
Coming under renewed attack is Benny Tai, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong or HKU, and a co-founder of the Occupy Central protests, as the pro-democracy movement was known and which was later dubbed the Umbrella Movement from pictures of protesters using umbrellas to stave off pepper spray.
A pro-Beijing lawmaker, Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, said he would write to HKU to ask for Tai to be removed from his post. Tai has been a member of the university’s law faculty since 2000. Ho launched a signature campaign earlier in August to push for Tai’s removal.
“It is no longer appropriate for Benny Tai to teach at HKU given that he is teaching students how to maintain the rule of law under the spirit of advocating civil disobedience,” Ho told Hong Kong radio on 21 August, claiming Tai was poisoning young minds. “We cannot let this happen, he needs to be removed.”
Peter Mathieson, HKU’s outgoing vice-chancellor confirmed on Wednesday that he had received “a handful of requests” to remove Tai from his teaching post at the university, but Mathieson added in remarks to local media in the margins of his inauguration speech for the university’s new academic year that he did not entirely agree with the content of the letters.
Without naming the letter writers, the vice-chancellor said: "I read these letters and don’t agree with them all and I don’t expect to agree with everybody.”
He added: "We have our procedures for taking action against students and staff if we think they infringe the regulations of the university. We are not a surrogate courtroom.”
Student leaders jailed
The remarks come in the wake of the jailing of former student leaders of the Umbrella Movement on 17 August, when public prosecutors sought to increase the previously handed down suspended jail terms of student leader Alex Chow and community service orders for Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, who are members of the Demosisto Party, which was formed in the wake of the Umbrella Movement in order to contest the September 2016 legislative council elections.
Nathan Law, a member of the Lingnan University Students' Union, was elected in September to the Hong Kong legislature as its youngest ever member at 23 and had been the secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students or HKFS. He was sentenced to eight months in prison on 17 August.
Alex Chow, 26, a former vice-president of the HKU Students' Union and a former secretary general of HKFS, was sentenced to seven months in prison, and Joshua Wong, 19, to six months for their role in storming a government building in September 2014.
The jail term handed down by the Court of Appeal effectively bars Law and others from standing for election to the legislature for five years, and led to widespread condemnation that it was politically motivated. It was also seen by some critics as a politicisation of Hong Kong’s normally independent judiciary because it overturned the more lenient sentences passed by a lower court.
Controversially, the judgment handed down in the case of Law, Chow and Wong, and only released in its English language version on Wednesday, more than a week after the Chinese transcript, despite English being one of the official languages of the courts, said: “Certain people, including individuals of learning, advocate ‘achieving justice by violating the law’ and under this slogan, they encourage others to break the law.
“Not only do they refuse to admit their lawbreaking activities are wrong, but they even go as far as regarding such activities as a source of honour and pride. It is unfortunate that such arrogant and conceited ways of thinking have influenced some young people and have caused them to engage as they please in activities that are damaging to public order and disruptive of the peace at assemblies, processions or demonstrations.”
It is thought that ‘individuals of learning’ refers to Tai, among others.
Tai, along with Chan Kin-man, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was charged on 27 March – the day after current Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam took office – with ‘conspiracy to commit public nuisance’ and inciting others to do so during the Occupy movement.
They are expected to appear in court next month. The charges carry a maximum of seven years in jail.
Tai has declared publicly that the charges amount to “political persecution” and said that the timing, a day after the Hong Kong leadership election, was “a reasonable basis for suspecting” that political considerations played a part in the decision.
Tai said he had been saddened by the 17 August court ruling against the former student activists but said he had no regrets for initiating the civil disobedience movement under the Occupy Central banner. He stressed, nonetheless, that he never called on people to arbitrarily break the law.
Support for activists
In the wake of the jail terms a huge march took place in Hong Kong on 20 August in support of the three activists. Organizers claimed it was the biggest turnout since the 2014 street protests.
Asked about the jailing of Alex Chow, a former HKU student union leader, Mathieson said: "We expect people to take responsibility for their actions. We understand people’s motivations and their concerns about themselves and about the future,” the vice-chancellor said. "We can’t absolve the breaking of the law.”
Mathieson said: "The court has its own opportunity to make decisions about guilt or innocence and we respect those decisions.”
Another prominent Occupy student leader, Lester Shum, said the students had decided to take part in the civil disobedience campaigns after exhausting other means of demanding universal suffrage in Hong Kong. He said it was not a rash decision.
*This article first appeared on University World News