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Universities battleground for latest row over Hong Kong freedoms
By Elaine YU
Hong Kong (AFP) Sept 23, 2017

Labour of love: a daughter's campaign to free her father
Hong Kong Sept 22, 2017 - Two years after her bookseller father vanished into Chinese detention, Angela Gui refuses to give up her campaign to free him, despite growing concerns for her own safety. Gui Minhai disappeared on October 17, 2015, one of five Hong Kong booksellers known for publishing gossipy titles about Chinese political leaders to go missing. For the first 18 months, Angela barely slept. But the 23-year-old student has turned her campaign to release him into a kind of job, which she says is helping her to cope. "My dad... wouldn't just be quiet if his own daughter ended up in that situation," Angela told AFP by phone from England, where she is about to start a PhD at Cambridge University. "I thought: 'Well if he would do that for me, I will just do what he would do'". She has had three brief phone calls from her father since his disappearance, all telling her that he is fine and she must not get involved with his case -- which she believes he did not say voluntarily. Angela has refused to keep quiet and has regularly publicised Gui's plight, including addressing a United States congressional hearing on China's persecution of its critics. Last week, Angela had the first news of her father in almost a year after the Swedish ambassador to China, Anna Lindstedt, was granted access to Gui. Born in China and living in Hong Kong, Gui was also a Swedish citizen, having spent part of his life working there. Angela was brought up in Gothenburg. In the meeting with Lindstedt, Gui said that he "feels good", Patric Nilsson, deputy director at the Swedish foreign ministry told AFP, adding the government was working actively on the case. - 'Huge relief' - "It was a huge relief to know not only was he alive, but he didn't look as bad as one might fear," says Angela, who was told her father had no visible signs of injury. Lindstedt also told Angela that her father had spoken mostly about her in the 20-minute meeting. "I was quite grateful that she told him I was doing really well, and for him not to worry," Angela says. Gui, now 52, disappeared in 2015 while on holiday in Thailand and is being held at an undisclosed location in China. In 2016, he appeared on Chinese television saying he had returned to take responsibility for his involvement in a fatal car accident years before in Zhejiang province, a confession roundly dismissed by rights campaigners. An official in Zhejiang told AFP the case was still under investigation. Angela says she has received no information on specific charges against him or how long he will be held. Gui is the only one of the five booksellers still in detention. His colleague Lam Wing-kee went missing in China and skipped bail on a return visit to Hong Kong to give an explosive account of his detention and interrogation. Two other booksellers who went missing in China have been released. Angela believes they are under surveillance and unable to leave the mainland. The fifth man, Lee Bo, disappeared in Hong Kong and resurfaced over the border, later insisting he had gone there of his own volition to help with an investigation. Lee, who Angela said she knew well, was allowed to return to Hong Kong and has since maintained a low profile. - Never forget - Angela asked her father whether his book work was risky, but he said it was legal in Hong Kong and he was not worried. But she knows he never gave his address for mail, using a post office box instead. Since his disappearance, Angela has become concerned for her own safety. She says she was jumped by two Chinese men who took photos of her when she was attending a book fair in Germany. She reported it to police in the UK and Sweden, who gave her numbers to call in an emergency and warned her not to travel to Asia.

Universities have become the latest battleground over freedoms in Hong Kong as a ban on signs on campuses advocating independence from China sparks fresh fears that the city's liberties are under threat.

As term kicked off earlier this month, posters and banners calling for semi-autonomous Hong Kong to split from the mainland were plastered on walls and bulletin boards after a tense summer that saw pro-democracy lawmakers ousted and leading activists jailed.

Independence calls grew out of the failure of mass Umbrella Movement rallies in 2014 to win democratic reform for Hong Kong and have been fanned by growing concerns that Beijing is tightening its grip on the city.

The nascent independence movement has incensed China and local officials have also railed against activists.

When university chiefs penned a joint statement last week describing pro-independence banners as an abuse of free speech, angry students accused them of kowtowing to Beijing and censoring legitimate political debate.

"Freedom of expression is not absolute," the statement said, casting independence as contravening the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

University authorities also ordered students to immediately take down banners that violated school policies.

Student unions questioned how putting a political opinion went against the Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of speech.

"Universities are supposed to be the last bastions to defend these values, but instead they became the first ones to try to control (us)," Justin Au, president of the student union at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AFP.

"We find it very bizarre," he added, saying he believed the move came under pressure from the government.

Student anger was also exacerbated when a pro-Beijing legislator called for the murder of independence advocates at a public rally last week, with little public chastisement from authorities.

"It shows the powerful may have more freedom of speech than ordinary citizens," said Thomas Lee, secretary at the CUHK student union.

- 'Like 1984' -

But there has also been pushback from mainland students on campuses against the independence signs, with rival posters now slapped up on the universities' public "democracy walls" where people can have their say.

Several mainland students interviewed by AFP at CUHK largely condemned the pro-independence banner that had gone up there, saying that it made them uncomfortable as Chinese people or that it was simply naive or "stupid".

"It's unrealistic, they don't understand the country," said one student who gave her name as Chloe.

"I think the banner is a bit stupid," added a student from Guangzhou who provided his surname as Kwan.

"The freest people are those who follow the rules. Those who don't will feel oppressed everywhere."

City leader Carrie Lam has said there is "no room for discussion" of a split from China and what was happening at the universities required "immediate action".

Analysts say Hong Kong's hard line on independence reflects Beijing's zero tolerance.

"It is the one thing they fear most because it anticipates the break-up of a unified China," said Suzanne Pepper, an honorary fellow at CUHK.

"I think Beijing would rather destroy Hong Kong than allow that advocacy to take root here."

In a speech in Hong Kong in July, China's president Xi Jinping warned against challenges to Beijing's sovereignty, saying it crossed a "red line".

There have already been fears over interference in Hong Kong's education system and some teachers have said they feel under increasing pressure to self-censor.

There was also controversy when a pro-Beijing figure was chosen to lead the governing body at the University of Hong Kong after a popular liberal scholar was passed over for a senior post.

CUHK's Au says whether or not people are in favour of independence, it should be discussed as part of a debate on the future of Hong Kong after 2047, when the 50-year agreement made on its handover from Britain to China guaranteeing its freedoms and way of life expires.

While he said he believes that free speech comes with responsibilities, such as not advocating hate speech or posing immediate dangers to others, he says the restrictions now being imposed on students are distorting the true meaning of freedom of expression and trying to redefine it in a way more palatable to Chinese authorities.

"Like 1984's 'Big brother is watching you' -- this is not the kind of society we want to become," added CUHK's Lee.

"If we don't come out to defend (our rights) they will gradually disappear."

Patten calls for dialogue in divided Hong Kong
Hong Kong (AFP) Sept 19, 2017
Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten said Tuesday the move by the city government to seek a retrial of young democracy activists which eventually saw them jailed was a "political decision", as he called for dialogue to heal entrenched divisions. Patten was the last governor of Hong Kong before it was handed back to China in 1997 and has repeatedly spoken out about the importance of protect ... read more

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