One Year Since the Rioters’ University Rebelled

“Rioters’ University” is the derogatory name given by many pro-government media sources to the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). In response to their “riotous acts,” the students were reminded by the People’s Daily, China’s mouthpiece, of the school’s motto which is taken from the Confucian classic Analects, “through learning and temperance to virtue.” The students, however, humorously and proudly accepted this name and largely confirmed it with the confrontation between them and the police on campus a year ago.

As a former CUHK student from mainland China, I can still remember how mind-blowing those days were. On Monday 11th November, 2019, struggling to get up early in the morning, I was at first relieved to know that classes would be cancelled. I soon realized, however, that it was naïve to be happy. Chat groups quickly spread pictures of policemen with guns standing on the No.2 Bridge, an exit of CUHK. Later, we were told that the police came to stop the students from throwing bricks down to the main road from No.2 Bridge to force a ‘Three-Strike’ (suspend work, school, and market) by paralyzing traffic. The first day was all about fears that the police would break into the University, but it was the second day that brought the confrontation to its climax.

The doubt over whether we could resume classes or not unquestionably vanished the afternoon of 12th November. Sirens, helicopters, combustibles, rubber bullets, and tear gas all made themselves heard (or smelt). We were watching live streams of the situation on campus in our dorms with the windows tightly shut because our residential college was surrounded by tear gas. Just as things calmed down a little, rumors about police searches in the residential buildings started spreading, and our nerves were strained again. Our proximity with the confrontation scene allowed us all to come out and witness the once-in-a-lifetime night scene full of rubber bullets, water cannons, Molotov cocktails, shouts, cries, and tear gas (more than 2000 shot that day). I did not know how or even when the confrontation ended, but I remember seeing the mountain-city campus become a complete mess with bricks and trash everywhere the next day. I fled back home to mainland China on the 13th of November, and the moment I got into the car to Shenzhen, CUHK announced the termination of the semester.

The flame of confrontation spread to almost all other universities in Hong Kong after CUHK had been turned into a battlefield. Watching the siege of other campuses from home, notably Polytechnic University, and the clashes on streets between protesters and the police, I worried about whether we would be able to restart school after the winter break, until our college reaffirmed that CUHK was trying to repair the campus and would welcome students back as soon as the next semester started. And I did return to CUHK the first day of the second semester, only now pathways once covered by red bricks became cement, and bus routes were decreased as many buses were seriously damaged during the confrontation. But just as things started to return to normal and protests seemed to calm down a little, Covid-19 entered the picture.

The impact of the virus on Hong Kong was early and long-lasting. I would never have guessed that a brief leave for the Chinese New Year would mean the end of face-to-face classes for me altogether. Because of the virus, I never went back to Hong Kong, just as most people, and CUHK surely had some time to restore its original beauty with fewer people around. And with the virus, the momentum of protests had weakened, not only because Hong Kong people were wary of past experiences with SARS, but also because the Hong Kong government restricted gatherings. In the meantime, the hatred of Hong Kong people towards mainland China expressed itself in the calling of the pandemic as the “Wuhan Virus” by many media sources.

But detesting sentiments did not stop there as the governments of both Hong Kong and Beijing made their power more strongly felt among the people of Hong Kong. Over and over again, the Hong Kong government has prolonged the restriction on group gatherings though the sanitary situation has evidently improved, seen by many as only an excuse to limit manifestations. The most shocking event, however, happened on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, which is the imposition of the “National Security Law” on the former British colony by the Chinese People’s Congress with little consultation whatsoever with Hong Kong, if any. Seen by many as the death of “One Country, Two Systems” promised by Beijing, this draconian law empowered the Hong Kong government to further limit political movements in the name of national security, and it made sure the public felt the threat by quickly arresting several protesters holding banners advocating Hong Kong independence and outlawing the slogan of last year’s social movement: “Free Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time.”

The battle between the government and its opponents has been an unequal one from the beginning. The extremely high voter turnout of the Pan-democracy camp primary for the election of the legislative council was a manifest expression of the discontent felt by the people of the existing regime, the result of which shows in the new “Resistance Camp” gaining more ground compared to the traditional and moderate “Democratic Camp.” However, the government has largely disregarded this, disqualifying 12 Pan-democracy candidates. On July 31st, 2020, the government announced the postponement of the election due to Covid-19 even though many elections were held in places where the pandemic was much more severe, and consequently, the People’s Congress in Beijing decided that the existing LegCo members would extend their mandate for one year until the next election. The Pan-democracy camp chose to stay in the legislature based on poll results because the whole camp was split between whether to participate in this seemingly illegitimate LegCo or not.

But the governments of Hong Kong and Beijing were clearly not satisfied with the disqualified legislators staying in the Legislative Council. On 11th November, at the request of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, the People’s Congress in Beijing decided to further disqualify four Pan-Democracy incumbent LegCo members with immediate effect. Foreseeing this, the Pan-Democracy Camp announced their collective resignation, reducing the non-establishment members in the LegCo to only two in contrast with 41 pro-government counterparts. “The central government has completely abandoned the Basic Law and “One Country, Two Systems”, said one member during their resignation conference. With such a blow from Beijing, it is probable that the Pan-democracy camp would no longer participate in Hong Kong’s parliamentary politics in the future.

The future seems grim both for Hong Kong and for students in the “Rioters’ University”. One year after the “Siege of CUHK,” as students call it, it took less time for political slogans to disappear on campus, like one advocating for Hong Kong Independence just lasted one night on the walls of the University Library until it was covered with thick paint. In the exhibition organized by the Student Union commemorating the anniversary of the conflict on campus, last year’s photos could not reflect reality anymore because banners containing sensitive words were photoshopped, an act not by choice of the Student Union of course, but at the behest of the University, for fear of violating the National Security Law.

“Traces on the surface could be covered with paint, but traces in our hearts could not be washed away.” said one interviewee at the exhibition.

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