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Duty to protect student rights must come first


(Printed on South China Morning Post, 29 July 2013)

Not long ago, a member of the Executive Council who is also a former vice-chancellor of a local university, met a few other incumbent vice-chancellors for a chat. He raised the issue of theft, pointing at the criminal nature of the act of stealing, and asked them whether they would protect any of their students if they had committed such an act.

Then he drew an analogy: if you found out your students had joined the Occupy Central movement, you should not have helped them since it was illegal. The lesson is simple: you should not help them, just as you would not help thieves who had stolen your property.

In the eyes of the law the act of joining the Occupy movement is an offence; whether it is criminal in nature is debatable. Even if it were, how a free and tolerant society should deal with it is still arguable. Protesters and thieves are not in the same category. It is questionable whether the analogy even holds up.

I am not interested in arguing the nature of the case from a philosophical standpoint, and you could make a moral case for theft under some special circumstances. What I am interested in is how educational institutions might deal with this in the present context.

We can look at this issue from different angles. During the Vietnam war there were campus protests across North America in public and private schools alike. At times, the students' actions were not entirely orderly - they occupied buildings and boycotted classes, among other things. Was the military draft legal at the time? Yes. Was the conduct of the students lawful? No. Yet, except for a few incidents which turned violent, the police were never called in. The only tragedy took place at Kent State University where the National Guard opened fire on unarmed students.

If we don't want to look at cases in far-off lands, let us look at China. Many have heard of the May Fourth Movement when, on May 4, 1919, close to 5,000 students from various Peking universities demonstrated on the streets. After a brief confrontation with the police, 32 students, mostly from Peking University, were arrested.

Upon receiving the news, Cai Yuanpei, the legendary president of Peking University, announced in the college auditorium that it was his responsibility to rescue those students. On the fifth, the authorities sought to kick out all the "troublemakers" from their respective campuses.

Fourteen university presidents headed by Cai took collective responsibility by submitting their resignations. A huge public outcry erupted across the country and, on the seventh, all students were released.

Cai was not the only one. In the 1930s, Mei Yi-qi was president of Tsinghua University. In February, 1936, after some student unrest incidents, police moved into the campus and rounded up some 20 students.

Mei, who opposed students participating in political activities, came out to rescue them, in his own words "to safeguard independence and university integrity".

In both cases, the students did commit "offences". They did something, at least according to the then government, that was unlawful. The presidents felt obligated to protect them.

For our case, there is something ironic, too. Shortly after that meeting, a few of those VCs stood up to proclaim their duty to safeguard students' right to freedom of expression. The one who conspicuously missed the event is the VC of the very same university from which the Exco member came.

On a different occasion, he also remarked that, as leader of a university, he'd do his best to protect the rights and safety of his students.

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