HONG KONG – Thirteen Hong Kong
universities and academic institutions accused the Chinese-ruled
city’s leader of undermining freedom of expression amid a row
over pro-independence banners appearing on campuses.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to China in
1997, is guaranteed freedoms and a high degree of autonomy under
a “one country, two systems” arrangement, including freedom of
expression.

At the start of the academic year, banners advocating
independence from China appeared on noticeboards in at least
seven universities. Some large black banners were hung across
buildings.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam criticised the posters as a
violation of China’s sovereignty, while urging university
administrators to take “appropriate action”.

Some colleges, including the prestigious Chinese University,
described the posters as unconstitutional, but allowed some to
remain.

But late on Sunday, the 13 institutions issued a statement
titled “Arming ourselves in our darkest hour”, criticising Lam
and university authorities for “an explicit effort to limit our
freedom of expression”.

“Student unions stress that everyone enjoys the freedom of
speech, and this is the line that we shall never compromise …
we are ready to defend our rights and liberty,” it read.

Some observers said the controversy could be used to justify
another squeeze on the city’s freedoms, soon after several young
pro-democracy leaders were jailed for helping lead the city’s
massive “Occupy” pro-democracy civil disobedience movement in
late 2014.

The row has also stoked tension between local and mainland
students, who now comprise a sizeable part of university
admissions, especially in post-graduate studies.

Calls for independence, once rare in the financial hub,
began to gain traction after the 2014 protests and as
disillusionment grew towards China’s perceived tightening grip.
Late last year, two pro-independence lawmakers were disqualified
from office after Beijing’s parliament ruled their oath-taking
carried digs at China.

Beijing resolutely opposes talk of Hong Kong splitting from
China, with the mini-constitution stating the city is an
“inalienable” part of the country. The so-called Basic Law also
enshrines freedom of expression.

Groups of students from both sides have faced off on several
occasions, with mainland students putting up anti-independence
posters, condemning calls for independence.

One female student from China was filmed and challenged for
tearing down some of the pro-independence banners.

“If you’re talking about democracy, you can put them up (the
banners) and I can pull (them) down,” she said in the video.

An official blog run by China’s state mouthpiece, the
People’s Daily, on Sunday published a long editorial saying
there were limits to freedom of expression and that Hong Kong
laws on public order could be used to jail trouble makers.

“It is quite apparent that Beijing and the Hong Kong
government would like to use this excuse to impose a political
crackdown,” said political commentator Joseph Cheng.

“Certainly the pro-Beijing establishment has been asking for
rapid legislation of the controversial Article 23 legislation,”
Cheng added, referring to proposed national security laws that
would criminalise perceived acts of sedition.