Hong Kong's universities have been under fire in a series of student arrests and university organization clampdowns since the territory's controversial national security law was implemented in 2020.
In the latest episode, the student union at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, one of Hong Kong's most prestigious universities, dissolved itself in October under pressure to register legally as an independent organization rather than just being recognized by the university.
Established half a century ago, the student organization became history after the collective resignation of its student council – its governing body – and the organization's decision to dissolve itself. The dissolution is widely seen as a consequence of authorities' move to silence the voices of students, whom the government believe have made up most of the protesters in the anti-government movement since 2019.
The university was at the forefront of the anti-government protests. In November 2019, it turned into a battlefield between student protesters and the police. The police fired rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators on campus; students responded by throwing bricks and gasoline bombs.
This January, police arrested three students, including former student union President Owen Au, and searched dormitories after a campus protest.
A month later, in February, the university administration severed ties with the student union, banning it from using university facilities and accusing it of failing to clarify "potentially unlawful statements and false allegations." The student union had previously accused the university of "kowtowing to the [Chinese] regime," according to public broadcaster RTHK.
The student union was seen by Beijing as part of the "rebellion" of 2019, so the student union being "pacified" came as no surprise after the city implemented the national security law in June of last year, Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute of the SOAS University of London, wrote to VOA.
"Why should anyone be surprised that student unions have been picked to be 'pacified'? The introduction of the national security law marked the implementation of a new paradigm in Hong Kong … requiring all residents there to show loyalty to the party-state," Tsang said.
In an October 6 statement on Facebook, the student union said the university administration no longer recognized its registration on campus, and in turn required it to register with the government under the Societies Ordnance.
"CUSU sought professional legal opinion and was advised that 'the ordinance does not apply to CUSU' for independent registration. We are now torn between following the legal advice or complying with the university administration's demand," it said.
In a meeting that followed, the student union passed a motion to dissolve itself.
The Hong Kong university's administration said its new requirement is "a necessary step to ensure the CUSU can continue its operations compliant with the law," according to a press statement.
However, Chow Po-chung, an associate professor of government and public administration at the university, wrote on Facebook in October, "I don't think anyone has the obligation to stay [in the student union] in the current political environment."
Chow added, "CUHK has the responsibility to publicly state why they single-handedly destroyed the student union established 50 years ago, which made major contributions to teachers and students, as well as bred countless talents."
On why student unions are important, Chow said, "It is the collective entity of the realization of students' democracy and autonomy. All students become members of this entity the moment they set foot on campus. Through multiple activities, members try to lead a democratic life and learn to become a confident and socially responsible democratic citizen with dreams."
The CUHK move came after the government clamped down on another prestigious university's student union earlier this year.
In August, four members of the student union at the University of Hong Kong were arrested on suspicion of promoting terrorism under the national security law, after they publicly mourned a man who stabbed a police officer and then killed himself in July.
The arrests came after the university issued a strongly worded statement in May that called the student union a "platform for political propaganda" and cut ties with it.
Among the eight public universities in the former British colony, only one student union is still in active operation and no students ran for any of the unions' student councils this year.
"How many people would choose to go to jail or risk ruining their career at a young age?" Tsang asked.
University student unions cannot "stay clean" from politics, he said.
"Activism is involvement in politics. No one can get into politics and 'stay clean' — not more than jumping into a lake and staying dry," he said.
"Student unions are just one of the many civil society organizations that face this new suppression," he said.