HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hundreds of students rallied at a Hong Kong university on Friday in support of two colleagues who were suspended following a protest over a Mandarin language test that grabbed headlines in Chinese state media.
The two students had argued with teachers last week during a protest over what they called an overly stringent test that requires them to prove they are proficient in a language used in mainland China but not so much in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong.
The university accused the pair of making the teachers “feel threatened and insulted.”
Shouting “student protest is not a crime” as they marched across bridges at Hong Kong Baptist University, the demonstrators said the suspensions could hamper freedom of speech on campus.
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” principle, which guarantees it free speech and academic freedoms not permitted on the mainland.
Critics accuse Beijing of increased meddling in those freedoms and of trying to eventually replace Cantonese, and other regional Chinese dialects, with Mandarin in a bid to homogenise society.
One of the suspended students, Andrew Chan, 22, said the state-run tabloid Global Times had singled him out as a supporter of Hong Kong’s independence from China - an allegation he denies - forcing him to give up an internship at a Chinese hospital in the southern city of Guangzhou after receiving more than 100 threatening messages.
In one social media message seen by Reuters, a person wrote: “I really look forward to you coming to Guangzhou. I will let you know how it feels to be beaten up until all your teeth drop to the ground.”
“It is absurd how a protest against a university policy has now been elevated to the level of state secession and I’m being labelled a Hong Kong independence advocate,” Chan told Reuters.
“When state media are involved, I don’t think it is just a matter of sensationalism, but it is a form of exercising control.”
Since Hong Kong students led tens of thousands in 2014 to occupy major roads for months to demand full democracy for the city, university campuses have often taken centre stage in debates over the city’s future.
Schools in China’s “special administrative region” of Hong Kong have become a new front for anti-China sentiment amid what many see as increasing interference by Beijing to stifle dissent.
Baptist University said in a statement on Friday the decision to suspend the two “was made solely based on the abusive behaviour of the students, nothing to do with politics and outside pressure”.
A recent report published by non-government organisation Hong Kong Watch said while academic freedom is “alive and generally well” in Hong Kong, it is under threat due to the politicization of universities following the 2014 protests.
“The suspensions that these students are facing are symptomatic of the broader politicization of universities,” said the report’s author, Kevin Carrico, a lecturer of Chinese Studies at Macquarie University.
He also called the students “victims of a state-led campaign” in reference to the Global Times articles.
Footage of the students and teachers arguing during the eight-hour sit-in protest last Wednesday was circulated widely online and picked up by local and mainland Chinese media.
Some, including the city’s acting Chief Executive Matthew Cheung, have criticised student union leader Lau Tsz-kei, 20, for using an expletive when he argued with a teacher. Lau later apologized.
A commentary published under a subsidiary of the state-owned People’s Daily on Thursday said the Baptist University students had been “heavily poisoned by an attitude that fights against everything mainland China”.
Reporting by Venus Wu; Additional reporting by Chermaine Lee and Wyman Ma; Editing by Nick Macfie