HONG KONG – Four student union leaders at the University of Hong Kong were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of “advocating for terrorism” after holding a moment of silence for a man who stuck a police officer and then killed himself.
The arrests, made by the new National Security Police in Hong Kong, represented the latest effort against opposing voices as Chinese territory tries to sniff out any sign of the disagreement that flared up during the 2019 protest movement.
University students were among the most determined and loud protesters during the demonstrations in the city in recent years. And Hong Kong officials have used a national security law imposed on the city of Beijing last year to target campuses, which they have branded as dangerous incubators for anti-government sentiment.
Wednesday’s arrests stemmed from a live-streamed meeting on July 7, in which the student union held the moment of silence and adopted a proposal expressing “deep grief” over the man’s death and appreciation for his “victim”.
As the height of the protests against the government, the police termed university campuses as hotbeds of violence and “cancer cells”, Which put the city in danger. The ranks of student activists have fallen under pressure from university administrators and officials. Many have said they are struggling to survive against the tighter grip of the Chinese Communist Party.
“To tell the truth, it feels like we’re just waiting to die,” said Yanny Chan, union leader at Lingnan University. said this year.
The Professional Teachers’ Union, which had more than 90,000 members, was dissolved last week after the government stopped recognizing it in the wake of attacks by Chinese state media. The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized mass protest marches, disbanded on Sunday after police repeatedly accused it of illegal operations.
National Security Police said Wednesday they had arrested student union president Charles Kwok Wing-ho; the chairman, Kinson Cheung King-sang; and two other representatives, Anthony Yung Chung-hei and Chris Shing-hang Todorovski. None of the students or their attorneys could be reached for comment.
Hong Kong security secretary Chris Tang said at a news conference on Wednesday that they would be accused of “inciting” a terrorist attack. “If there is evidence,” he added, “we will arrest and we will prosecute.” Those convicted of terrorism under national security law can face at least five years in prison.
At an earlier news conference outside police headquarters, Li Kwai-Wah, a senior inspector in the National Security Department, said the student union’s language “rationalizes, beautifies and glorifies terrorism.” He suggested that there was a close link between terrorism and “hatred” of the government and the police force.
When reporters asked why the students did not get another chance after withdrawing their comments, Li said the crimes were irreversible. “Withdrawals can only be taken as excuses,” he said.
He added that “praise, defense and promotion” of the man’s attack on the police all meant “advocating terrorism” and that the police would interview the 30 people present at the July meeting who had voted in favor of the proposal. (Two abstentions.)
In July, the University of Hong Kong severed ties with the student union. A month later, that blocked all students who had attended the meeting from campus facilities, citing concerns that the “continued presence” of union members would pose “serious legal and reputational risks” to the institution, Hong Kong’s leading university.
Alumni signed an online petition urging university leaders to lift the sentence. A prominent law professor, Eric Cheung, resigned from the university’s management board over his decision.
“I’m very sorry,” Professor Cheung said said in a radio interview at the time. “Why, as a university, do we not help students correct themselves after making a mistake?” He declined to comment on the arrests.
A spokeswoman at the university also declined to comment, saying: “It is not appropriate for us to comment as the case is under investigation.”
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