Apolitical student unions ‘the only option’ in Hong Kong

Students welcome formation of new CUHK union but say its political involvement will be limited

September 8, 2022
A woman holding an umbrella walks in front of water barrier soutside the West Kowloon
Source: Getty

An “apolitical” students’ union forming at one of Hong Kong’s leading universities could become a model for groups at other nearby institutions where learners are still without representation.

Nearly a year since the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s students’ union disbanded, following growing tensions with administrators over students’ involvement in politics, CUHK has signalled that the union can re-form – under certain conditions.

The new union, which is expected to start functioning this coming spring, will need to steer clear of politics, according to reports.

Relationships between students’ unions and administrators in Hong Kong universities have been on a rocky footing since 2019, when student-led protests erupted across the island in response to the National Security Law, which was widely seen as a clampdown on political dissidents. This April, Hong Kong Polytechnic University cut ties with its students’ union, becoming the fifth institution to push its students’ body off campus since the law came into force, according to local media.

If it goes ahead as planned, the re-establishment of CUHK’s students’ union could point the way forward for student leaders at other Hong Kong institutions.

Owen Au, a recent CUHK graduate who served as students’ union president in 2018, said that student leaders on the island have “no choice but” to take an apolitical approach.

“It is actually a question of ‘to be or not to be’: either function in a depoliticised form and work in low profile, or being disbanded,” he said.

“It is believed that even if student leaders nowadays choose to touch some politically sensitive issues, no change can be made except risking their personal safety and the existence of [the] students’ union.”

Anson Law, a CUHK student who is involved in re-establishing its students’ union, said that the existence of students’ unions, even ones “limited to campus policy issues”, was still preferable to the alternative. He believed that students have some leeway to voice their views on sensitive topics – provided they do not irk administrators.

“Rather than not being able to [speak] out on particular issues, I think students have to express their views in a mild way,” he said.

He told Times Higher Education that, for CUHK’s students’ union to re-form, it must be a separate legal entity, be bilingual and open to full-time postgraduate students.

While he felt that widening participation in the union “may allow more voices being considered”, non-local students and postgraduates may not be “familiar or interested” in CUHK issues.

William Lo, a professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, was positive about the formation of a new union, saying, “we need student participation in university governance”.

He suggested that broadening participation to non-locals and postgraduate students might be beneficial, given the university’s highly international student body and because its postgraduate education had “expanded significantly” in the last couple of decades.

“I don’t think the voice of specific groups should dominate the student representation,” he said.

Others were less enthused. A CUHK student involved in past student representation, who wished to remain anonymous, was sceptical that in the “current apathetic atmosphere” many students were “well informed and involved” in creating a new union. She also worried that the reinstatement of a students’ union would “deter students from forming concern groups or initiating political action upon huge events like they used to”.

Still, she said, this may be inevitable. “Ultimately, the influence of the CUHK students’ union has been declining in recent years. It’s deemed to be a symbolic group rather than having actual organising power.”


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