The Campus as Battleground: Placing the University Within the Hong Kong Protests

Mia M. Bennett (University of Hong Kong), Lachlan B. Barber (Hong Kong Baptist University) and Benjamin L. Iaquinto (University of Hong Kong)

We dont need no education
We don
t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone
All in all it
s just another brick in the wall
All in all you
re just another brick in the wall

(Another Brick in the Wall [Part 2], Pink Floyd)


Precisely 101 years after the armistice that brought the trench warfare and mustard gas of World War I to an end, tear gas and rubber bullets were fired at an unconventional battleground: the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). The scenes from 11 November 2019 of riot police chasing students across a college-catalogue-green athletics field, of a bridge over a highway ominously illuminated by an orange blaze of tear gas and Molotov cocktails, and students hoisting black flags emblazoned with “Free Hong Kong – Revolution of Our Times!” marked a stark departure from the norms of higher education (Figure 1).

Figure 1: A student-erected sculpture of a female protestor with a gas mask, goggles, and helmet flying a black flag and holding an umbrella at the University of Hong Kong, adjacent to the sculpture that memorializes Tiananmen Square. (Photo: the authors, 17 September 2019)

The conflicts breaking out across campuses in Hong Kong, where most universities cancelled classes for the rest of the semester, reverberate with struggles elsewhere. In October, violent protests over social inequality erupted across Chile’s universities, met with bloody force by police. In early November in Lyon, France, a student set himself on fire to draw attention to his financial plight, sparking an outburst of campus conflicts. In Paris, dozens of students protested at the French higher education ministry demanding the resignation of its head, Frédérique Vidal, who then told journalists: “Violence has no place in a university.” Back in Hong Kong on 15 November, CUHK President Rocky Tuan (2019) argued: “The university is a place of learning, not a weapons factory, battlefield for violent acts, or political arena.” Yet days later, the most violent campus conflict yet in Hong Kong broke out at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), where – facing the prospect of forced surrender to police – some student protesters managed to escape riot police by shimmying down ropes to a flyover where motorcycles waited to whisk them away.

Campuses have thus consistently been the setting of revolts, protests and resistance movements in many different contexts. But what is happening in Hong Kong represents a new direction in which campuses are transformed into key battlegrounds within a wider urban resistance. While the Hong Kong protests have been ongoing since June 2019, the period of 11-15 November 2019 saw their concentration and coagulation at the city’s universities.

This shift was significant in a number of respects. Firstly, it occurred partly in response to the death of Alex Chow Tsz-lok (周梓樂), a 22-year-old student from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who died on 8 November after receiving brain injuries during clashes with police earlier that week. This incident underscored the intensifying nature of Hong Kong’s political crisis and contributed a heightened emotional tone to the demonstrations in November (Figure 2). Secondly, protestors abandoned the Bruce Lee-inspired protest tactic to “be water” and move from place to place in favor of occupying university campuses. Thirdly, the protestors became more heavily armed, turning confrontations with police significantly more violent.

Figure 2: The University of Hong Kong on 11 November 2019, the first school day following the death of Alex Chow Tsz-lok, whom student protestors claimed died at the hands of police. (Photo: the authors)

While there are different issues at stake in France, Chile and Hong Kong, in each case, students are seizing the university as a site of resistance at the very moment as administrators attempt to exclude conflict and, notably, politics from its grounds. Turning the statements of the French and Hong Kong educational officials on their heads, then, what exactly is the place of a university in society in the 21st century?

As geographers and scholars, it is our responsibility to think seriously about this question. In what follows, the article’s three co-authors attempt to grapple with this issue from Hong Kong, where they have all lived and worked for between two to five years. Although none of the authors is native to the city, our status as long-term residents (one with family in Hong Kong) affords us a unique close-up, albeit partial, view. It also underscores something of the condition of Hong Kong – and universities in general, which are ever more internationalized – of connectedness and temporariness. Our semi-outsider position engages questions of legitimacy, representation, voice, and accountability, both in the university and in society at large.

To reckon with the conflicts erupting across Hong Kong’s universities, we explore the drivers, processes, and consequences of student resistance across three dimensions: geopolitics, materialities, and circulation. Tentative explorations of these three areas offer opportunities to intervene in key debates in geography with relevance to current events affecting not only Hong Kong and its universities, but higher education worldwide.

The Geopolitics of University Depoliticisation

Universities have long been symbols of critical inquiry, reason, and openness to new ideas. In an era of globalization, they are also markers of prestige and generators of profit – even to relatively more illiberal states such as Singapore, Hungary, and, notably, China. Governments in these countries recognize that they need universities to both promote economic development and to attain the globally recognized markers of modern society. Yet the values that universities traditionally foster can put them in conflict with the ruling powers, and not just in Hong Kong. In Singapore, a class on dissent at Yale-NUS, a liberal arts college, was recently cancelled (Redden 2019). This past summer, the U.S. courses at the George Soros-founded Central European University were forced out of Budapest to Vienna by Hungarian President Viktor Orbán. In an illiberal society, the university becomes an internal contradiction in which the student body and its supporters, inculcated with liberal values, can clash with administrators who answer more to the government than to their pupils.

There may be no stronger sign of the geopoliticisation of Hong Kong’s universities than efforts on multiple sides to call for their depoliticization, which is taking two forms. The first is an effort to deter governments from interfering in university activities. Reflecting this more geopolitical stance, in 2018, outgoing University of Hong Kong (HKU) president Peter Mathieson, who departed from his position early, stated that “I wish higher education was not so politicised”, subtly alluding to the hand of Beijing (Lau and Wong 2018). The second, less salient form of depoliticization that has emerged during the Hong Kong protests is an effort to remove politics altogether from campuses. Politics manifests when citizens gather in public spaces such as a university to discuss matters of collective concern. These gatherings can then lead to the possibility of individuals mobilizing to protect their interests in the face of policies they view as threatening their values and futures. But at the height of the protests, as mentioned in the introduction, CUHK President Tuan (2019) contended that the university is “not…a political arena”. Lastly, an announcement for a “reflection space” gathering at HKU’s Faculty of Law in November 2019 stressed that the event was a “non-political space open to all”.

In the place of politics, one key word has appeared: rationality – an ideal also integral to Chinese government practices and policies (Anagnost 1995). In multiple letters to the HKU community, for instance, President and Vice-Chancellor Xiang Zhang, a recent appointee originally from Mainland China with an over two-decade career in the United States, has underscored the importance of “safety and rationality”. The substitution of politics with rationality belies Max Weber’s belief that modern society is headed inexorably towards decision-making based on calculation and efficiency rather than values and emotions, engendering the establishment of large and complex bureaucracies accountable to no one. The danger of this, as Hannah Arendt (1969) argued, is that “…the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence”. Referencing the student riots in France and the U.S. in the spring of 1968, which successfully achieved some of their desired reforms through violent action, she added: “The crucial feature in the students’ rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy.”

With its unelected chief executive, Hong Kong is a bureaucratic state par excellence. While public support for the administrative state was still high at the handover in 1997, mismanagement of crises (Painter 2005) compounded by an increasing perception of illegitimacy has undermined its reputation. If Hong Kong’s eight publicly-funded universities and the city at large become further bureaucratized, the risk for violence may grow. Worryingly, the inherently geopolitically-charged efforts at depoliticization may lead many students, left without room for political action, to resort to conflict. Ironically, an appeal to rationality may cement the place of violence in the university.

Pixelated Bricks: Digital Subversions of Physical Materialities

Human geographers have engaged extensively with matter and materiality (Abrahamsson et al 2015; Braun 2014; Whatmore 2006). Materials come in various states such as liquid, solid or gas, and they can manifest in the elements of wind, fire, water and earth (Anderson and Wylie 2009). An important insight is that materials are lively and dynamic, not inert (Bennett 2010). These materials can also be mobilized in different ways. As Edensor (2013) shows, people are not separate from materiality but are thoroughly involved in its varied emergence. Social scientists must therefore consider the agency or politics of materials themselves.

The protests’ literal emplacement within university campuses and the administration’s reaction – namely, the digitalization of academic life – pose different risks to the university. Along campus walkways, bricks were no longer simply paving materials, but weapons used to resist police both as projectiles and as road blocks (Figure 3). The weaponized paving materials recalled a popular slogan from the 1968 student protests in France, “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Under the paving stones, the beach!”). The impromptu excavation of the foundations of urban circulation takes on added significance in Hong Kong, where much land has been reclaimed from the sea and where Chinese state media has blamed the protests on housing costs. During the 11-15 November protests, petrol bombs became ubiquitous, and medieval weapons were deployed for the first time (Jones and Leung 2019). Bamboo lattices, bricks piled into small trilithon structures and caltrops fashioned out of plastic hose and nails became common sights on the campuses and surrounding roads of at least five of the region’s eight publicly funded universities – HKU, CUHK, PolyU, City University of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Baptist University. The protestors’ actions demonstrated that what can make a city (or a university) can unmake it, too. Still, some academic materials remained noticeably untouched by protestors: library books. While we cannot say whether this was out of care to their educational or symbolic importance, the material value of the printed page remains critical into (and despite) the digital era. At the same time, one key slogan of the protests that appeared on campus walls taken from the 2005 film V for Vendetta, “Ideas are bulletproof”, suggests that indestructability may arise from immateriality (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Bricks scavenged from the pavement surrounding the University of Hong Kong transformed into road blocks in front of campus. (Photo: courtesy of Terry van Gevelt, Politics and Public Administration, HKU)
Figure 4: Graffiti along Li Promenade, a pedestrian artery through Hong Kong Baptist University’s campus, borrows a quote from the film V for Vendetta. (Photo: the authors, 18 October 2019)

While long recognized on the battlefields of war, where drones run rampant (Shaw and Akhter 2012), the integration of the cyber and physical realms is now critical to protest activities, too – and, ironically, means of overcoming the obstacles they create. Social media is a critical organizing platform for student protestors, who broadcast the latest updates while co-ordinating their movements via the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Media outlets broadcast live footage of the protests 24/7 with as many as nine simultaneous live feeds, making the Hong Kong protests possibly ‘the most live-streamed protests ever’ (Hui 2019). At HKU, the televisions across campus – controlled by a Student Union Council association since 1989 – play looped footage of police brutality.

Digital technologies have also become vital for continuing the everyday work of the university. As working on campus became untenable in mid-November, classes, staff meetings, and job interviews were held via Skype and Zoom. (Congregations, which could not be held virtually, were cancelled altogether.) While allegedly only temporary, several of Hong Kong’s universities have since made sizeable investments in these digital programs. But in undermining the relevance of students gathering in place, the university’s virtualization may actually represent more of a threat to it as a space for collective learning than the removal of bricks.

Circulations, Obstructions, and the Defense of Place

It is not incidental that the two universities that saw the most heated confrontations between protesters and police during the week of 11 November – CUHK and PolyU – sit adjacent to busy highways, tunnels, and railway stations (Figure 5). At both universities, the elevated pedestrian walkways that connect transport stations to the campuses over busy roads served as platforms for destructive civil disobedience and subsequently became the front lines in battles with the police (Figure 6). Blocking transport was a tactic of resistance, with similar disruptions used as a form of more or less destructive and violent direct action elsewhere including, recently, Extinction Rebellion. In Hong Kong, such disruptions make ripples through a mobility system reflecting the city’s density and a regional political economy based on trans-boundary flows and the profitable integration of land and transport. The disruptive blockages in these cases contrast with the opening of others enabling circulations. This points to a politics of circulation (Beer 2013) of flows and frictions.

Figure 5: Map of publicly funded universities in Hong Kong (Lingnan University not shown as it is outside the frame) and major thoroughfares. (Source: the authors; Data: ESRI and OpenStreetMap)
Figure 6: An elevated walkway with riot police underneath in front of the University of Hong Kong on 11 November 2019. (Photo: the authors)

Police came to CUHK when protesters blocked the Tolo Harbour Highway, a major route from densely populated Kowloon to the border with mainland China. The rail transport (MTR) station at the campus was closed because protesters threw objects on the tracks, targeting the MTR partly because it had cooperated with police. The road and “trainspace” (Cidell 2012) closures affected infrastructures for Hong Kong’s ongoing integration into a regional vision: Greater Bay Area. These are some of Hong Kong’s main links to neighbouring Guangdong province, used by thousands of cross-boundary commuters, tourists, and others daily, and acting as important conduits for material goods.

The campus occupations represented a settling-down that ran counter to earlier mobile tactics of resistance. Returning to the idea of digital materialities in relation to the politics of circulation, protesters used online tools to share information and support one another’s safe mobilities. For instance, an app crowdsourcing the movements of police, and another connecting drivers with protesters needing rides when public transport was interrupted. Later, court injunctions blocked some apps that were judged to be inciting violence. More innocuously, a blue (pro-government and pro-Beijing) and yellow (pro-democracy) economy developed, enabled by online maps showing the locations and political inclinations of businesses like cafés and restaurants, suggesting a localizing challenge to the trans-boundary political economy. While Chinese government initiatives seek to integrate Hong Kong with the wider Pearl River Delta region, a future pursued in part through infrastructure projects like the recently-opened Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and the West Kowloon high speed rail link, political disputes may ultimately unsettle state efforts to enhance the circulation of capital, goods, and people. In their quest to protect the city’s universities, a correlate of wider and longer-term efforts to defend Hong Kong from incursions, protesters and some supporters have disrupted top-down plans and programmes premised on circulation in favour of places of resistance.

In closing, our brief analysis of the Hong Kong protests has separated the issues of geopolitics, materialities, and circulations. Yet all of these are deeply imbricated. A key example of this concerns the trade of tear gas. Once suppliers in the U.S. and Britain suspended sales to Hong Kong in September, its police force had to turn to Mainland Chinese suppliers. Their tear gas was allegedly more toxic, releasing greater quantities of cyanide and burning hotter. The interdependence of the politics, composition, and flow of the objects of protest can therefore result in lethal combinations.

Conclusion: Securing the Future Place of the University

Universities have long been derogatorily called “ivory towers” hopelessly detached from the real world – or what here might more aptly be referred to as the “school of hard knocks”. Yet the Hong Kong protests and their intensification on campuses across the conflict-riven city in mid-November 2019 shows their continued centrality to society beyond academia – even in the world’s “freest” economy. Hong Kong university students we have met in the social sciences emphasize that for them, university is less stressful than secondary school, as they gain more control over their time and schedules. Universities are places where students can critically reflect, think, study, and interact before they start their careers. The university’s dematerialization and virtualization is thus not the answer to advancing higher education into the 21st century. Undoubtedly, the digitalization of campuses would undermine the university both as a place in and of itself and its wider place within the world.

Some might argue that virtual education may allow “learning outcomes” to continue to be achieved even as conflicts brew. Certainly, this is tenable in the case of clear and present danger. But a commitment to virtualization may result in the hollowing-out of the university and enhance efforts to “depoliticize” higher education. Virtualizing or securitizing universities (as has been done on most Hong Kong university campuses through the decision to only allow access to those with staff or student identification cards) may serve to remove politics from campuses, but collective action will then find other outlets to express itself: witness the takeovers of airports, malls, and MTR stations over the course of the Hong Kong protests. These sites served an unintended purpose as ad hoc political gathering spaces. Yet the university as a dedicated public space for debate, critical thought, and, ultimately, politics should be safeguarded in Hong Kong and beyond. This entails not just protecting the right to the university, as is widely advocated (Benson and Harkavy 2014; Harkavy 2006), but the right of the university to exist. Whether governments, in their quest to integrate into global circuits of knowledge production, capital, and global prestige, through academic networks are willing to bear the risks to their rule presented by universities in their most authentic expression remains unclear. Regardless, the responsibility of scholars in protecting the university as a political and material place that fosters the circulation of ideas remains unchanged.


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