The heads of two of the city’s universities have found themselves thrust into the middle of the escalating standoff between the Hong Kong government and student activists demanding democratic reforms.
Yesterday, with the clock ticking toward a midnight showdown between the two sides, Peter Mathieson, a physician-researcher who became vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in April, stepped onto a makeshift platform along a major road in front of the seat of the Hong Kong legislature. He chose that location, he said, "on the advice of our student leaders," who recommended it as the protest site most in need of calming words. Mathieson praised the protesters for earning goodwill through their orderly and peaceful demonstrations. "Please, please, put safety first, don’t provoke any conflict," Mathieson said, his checked shirt soaked with sweat in the sweltering heat. Otherwise, he warned, "everything you’ve achieved so far could be lost."
He urged the crowd to remain calm and wait for a press conference announced by the government for 11:30 p.m. And then Joseph Sung, a physician who is vice chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), got up and made a similar plea in Cantonese.
The escalating protests are in response to what many in Hong Kong feel is a betrayal. Universal suffrage in elections for Hong Kong's chief executive by 2017 was a key principle underlying agreements to transfer Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. However, on 31 August, a committee of China's National People’s Congress announced that only two or three people should be eligible to run for Hong Kong's top political post and that all candidates should be selected by a nominating committee widely seen as favoring Beijing.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) called for students to boycott classes starting 22 September and launch protests, and many academics promised support. On 28 September, police lobbed rounds of tear gas at student demonstrators who fell back but then regrouped. The confrontation, carried live on TV, earned the police public scorn and the students more support. A separate protest movement called Occupy Central with Love and Peace had planned an act of mass civil disobedience for 1 October—mainland China's national day and a holiday in Hong Kong. But after tear gas was used on protesters, Benny Tai, an Occupy Central co-organizer and a law professor at HKU, asked supporters to join students in the streets immediately. And many did, leading to protesters blocking certain key thoroughfares 24/7 for the past week. The students issued an ultimatum, demanding that Hong Kong Chief Executive Chun-ying Leung resign by midnight Thursday or face the possibility of protesters occupying government buildings. That set the stage for the appearance of the two vice chancellors yesterday evening.
Leung did hold the press conference as promised at about 11:40 p.m. last night. He said he will not resign but he announced that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam would meet representatives of the students' federation for discussions.
Shortly after the government press conference ended, Mathieson and Sung appeared before reporters and protesters in front of a government building in the Admiralty section of the city. Again, Mathieson spoke first in English and then Sung in Cantonese. They both said they welcomed the agreement, which Mathieson called “a very significant step forward.” They also noted they had received assurances of tolerance as long as protests remain peaceful. "Let’s allow the dialog that’s now been arranged to try and achieve further reconciliation," Mathieson said. Sung was asked by a reporter if he and Mathieson were encouraging students to continue their protests. In an indication that students really are in charge, he said: "We do not want to see conflict. Whether the protesters leave or not is up to the groups’ leaders to decide."
The two men then walked away through a crowd of cheering students and demonstrators. One reporter asked Mathieson how he felt about the applause. "Embarrassed," he said. "I'm not used to this."
HKFS issued a statement saying it will participate in the talks aiming at political reform. It also says that Leung's resignation "is only a matter of time." The student strike continued today. Kenneth Lee, a Chinese-Scottish stem cell researcher at CUHK, who has been splitting his time between his campus and the protest sites, said that about 80% of undergrad students were not on campus today. Demonstrators surrounded key government buildings, leading the administration to close its offices. And in a dark new turn, government supporters today allegedly initiated attacks on protesters, according to HKFS’s and other Twitter feeds. There were subsequent reports of protesters saying they would call off the talks if the violence continued.