Democracy Wall in Hong Kong

In many of the stories in yesterday's post Does China Need An Internet Nanny?, the turning point was about the benefits and drawbacks of permitting "anyone to say anything anonymous."  On one hand, it protects people from retaliation for exercising free speech.  On the other hand, it enables people to spread rumors and untruths without accountability.  These trade-offs are well-known.

This particular story happened at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and was posted at InMediaHK.  At this time, the university BBS's in China seemed to be heading towards the registration of their users by their real names, requiring proof of identity and so on.  The same policy had apparently always been in place at the brick-and-mortar Democracy Wall in Hong Kong, except this particular incident had an ironic twist to it.  This is my abbreviated summary:

About a week ago, a big-character wall poster appeared at the Democracy Wall at the Wing On Plaza in Lingnan University.  The title of the poster was "Lingnan University is massacring the associate students."  It suffices to say this was a protest against a new policy change that basically will cut off opportunities for a group of students.

Two days after the poster appeared, it was torn down.  Next to the space, the Council of Representatives left a notice to the effect that the said poster had not followed the rules by listing the student I.D. of the poster and was therefore removed.

The notice from the Council of Representatives caused strong reactions from the Lingnan students.  Many students who have previously posted on the Democracy Wall with their student I.D.'s related that the school had identified them through their student I.D.'s and then 'followed up' with them about their comments.

There was another poster on the wall that said that if students are unable to follow the simple requirement of listing their student I.D.'s, then they must be 'abusing their freedm of speech' and exercising 'irresponsible speech.'  This poster became a joke among students.

I was unable to follow up and check if all the claims were true, but I have done some follow-ups and I have confirmed that it was not unusual for the school to contact some of the posters.

A student I.D. is like a barcode at a supermarket.  You can pull up the name, birthplace, age, gender, major, grades ... of the student immediately on the computer screen.  When the Council of Representatives declared that this rule must be obeyed by everyone, did they consider that rules and regulations should not be used to enforce the white terror against exercise of free speech?  Does this current rule protect the students' freedom of speech against retaliation?

By the time that the reader reaches this point, he/she may wonder that no matter how we criticise this and no matter how unreasonable the Lingnan Council of Representatives had been, we can at least all agree that there was an existing law, that what they did was legal and in fact they were required to do just that according to the law.

I thought that way too, except that there are too many ironies in this world.

On the right of that particular poster on "Lingnan University is massacring the associate students," there was another poster about the issues related to the students' executive committee.  That particular poster had appeared for more than a month, much earlier that the aforementioned poster and drew many responses.  BUT IT DID NOT CONTAIN A STUDENT I.D.  So a poster that did not mention any scandals about the university was not deleted even though it did not have the required student I.D. and it is still safely nested at that location today.  Other students have said that posters without student I.D.'s had been allowed to stay previously.

As you imagine, there is now even greater unhappiness over the selective enforcement of the law.

In an ideal world, the answer is obvious.  People should state their real names and bear responsibility for their speech.  At the same time, people will be protected from retaliation and harrassment as a result of their speech.  But the real world is more complicated.  In this situation, what is there to stop someone from posting and then putting  up a fake student I.D. number?  The damage would be done long before this is found out.  You can stop the school administration from contacting or following up, but what is there to prohibit an individual from filing charges or a civil libel lawsuit (and this may be based upon a perfectly honest belief) against the poster, resulting in ruinous legal costs and stress?