The Chinese University Student Press Incident In Perspective

(Ming Pao)  Love in a Time of Stormy Skies: The CUSP Incident Again.  By Ivan Choy Chi-keung (蔡子強).

[in translation]

[The author was the president of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Student Association in 1987]

If I have to say which university head I admire the most, some people might think that I am clueless.  That is because my candidate was not someone who rounded up a lot of donations for the university, and he did not know how to boast that he has built the university up to Number X in the world.  But his heart and mind made me an admirer -- he is the former Chinese University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor Charles K. Kao (高錕).

I recalled that in 1993, there was a huge Open Day to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  Those were the years when the Hong Kong student movement was the most "radical" in the aftermath of the June 4th incident.  The student organizations hated any celebration of peaceful and good times and they were determined to oppose the school.

On Open Day, there was a festive mood as the guests gathered to listen to vice-chancellor Charles Kao speak.  Suddenly, the radical students charged the podium and grabbed the microphone in front of all the guests, parents, students and alumni in order to express alternate voices.  There was chaos on the stage for several minutes, so that one must feel that it was a huge loss of face for the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  The students also placed their protest leaflets in inflated condoms and distributed them to those present.  They were being as provocative as possible.

Afterwards, when the vice-chancellor came down the podium, the Chinese University Student Press reporter rushed over immediately and asked whether the school would punish those students.  But the vice-chancellor gave a perplexed look:

"Punish?  Why would I punish the students?"

The student reporter was taken aback and felt that he must have been too presumptuous about other people.

Several years later, I had a long talk with Professor Kuan Hsin-chi (Hsin Chi) one evening.  This incident came up during the conversation and he disclosed that there was tremendous pressure from everywhere to demand that the Discipline Office punish those students.  But three persons opposed all the way and held back the pressure.  Among the three persons was the principal Charles Kao, who was the most humiliated and who should have been the most irate.

Another one was teacher Kuan, who was the Director of Student Affairs at the time.  I remembered that teacher Kuan told me as follows:

"A university campus is supposed to inspire thinking and bring society forward.  If our pace and boundaries are identical to the outside world, how can we spur anything forward?"

I can fully imagine that teacher Kuan must have been subjected to a great deal of pressure as the Director of Students Affairs while receiving abuse for his position.  But when he told me that, he was very calm and he spoke as if this was the most natural thing, just like vice-chancellor Charles Kao.

Students may not attain the knowledge of their teachers because they do not have enough talents; but when the teachers talk about how to live as people, the students do not forget.

But the student organizations at Chinese University of Hong Kong back then did not appreciate it.  The vice-chancellor was appointed "an advisor on Hong Kong affairs" by Beijing and so the students continued to oppose him.  For example, the student newspaper had nasty and abusive headlines such as "Hong Kong affairs advisor pretends all is peaceful and prosperous; Chinese University vice-chancellor has accomplished nothing" and so on.  While some professors were dismayed, vice-chancellor Charles Kao treated it as normal.  He even took out HK$20,000 each year from his personal account to assist those financially needy persons in the student organizations; each year, he wrote a personal letter to thank the student organizations for their contribution to the university; he helped the students resolve conflicts and he helped to mediate a public court case about teacher-student disagreement about grading.

But some more radical Chinese University students published a series of tabloid newspapers based upon synonyms of foul words as well as indecent photographs of sexual organs.  They went far beyond what happened now.  But the university only gave some advice and never imposed any disciplinary punishment.

"The father of French philosophy" Voltaire once said: "Even though I do not agree what you say, I will defend your right to say your viewpoint with my life."  On the Chinese University campus back then, I could appreciate the meaning of that sentence.  It is the slow accumulation of these experiences that cause the campus rebels of our generation to still love Chinese University today.

The erotic section of the Chinese University Student Press has recently caused a huge storm.  People say that the students have deviated from societal norm and the public finds it unacceptable.  But should the societal norms really be the limits for student movements and campus discussion?

I remember that during the "negotiations of the future of Hong Kong" in the early 1980's, the Chinese University students dared to say the unthinkable by advocating that Hong Kong should break off British colonial rule and return democratically back to China.  In that hedonistic colonial society, this was a remarkable deviation that was miles away form the "mainstream societal norm."  The public found it totally unacceptable and called the students "Communist spies" and "damned leftists."  Some people said that these Chinese University students will never by hired by their companies upon graduation and they urged the Chinese University to warn those students.  Twenty years later, has history shown who was right and who was wrong?

An illustrious Chinese University alumnus today is Vincent Cheng.  In the 1970's, he was a student activist who had been arrested for posting "Protect Diaoyu Islets" posters on the street.  Wong Wei-lun (王慧麟) went to London to consult the declassified secret archives of the colonial administration and found that "Taipan Cheng"  was called an "extreme radical student" and considered a troublemaker.

I believe that there were many voices back then criticizing that these students affected the reputation of the school and its students.  But decades later, all of this is history.  Vincent Cheng has become the "Taipan" of HSBC.  Andy Ho used to spray with people with a water pistol from his student dormitory and the angry young man Lau Sai-leung have both become the trusted lieutenants of the Chief Executive Donald Tsang.  This is exactly how things should be during the student era.

Last Thursday, I watched the self-justification offered by the student press editorial board via television.  On the faces of one after another student, I observed persistence and sincerity, as opposed to lewdness and indecency.  Although they may have offended individual teachers in the past, I believe that they are all sincere.

I believe that if the students should volunteer to reflect or apologize some day, the reason would not because the university has sanctioned.  Rather, it would be the fact we the teachers have handled their deeds with the utmost patience and sincerity; if the students should still remember us many years later, it is most likely not because we taught them any specific knowledge but because we used ourselves as examples to show them how to act and behave.

I was back on campus on Saturday and I found that the students spent all night to come up with a joint letter in spite of the fact that was exam time and everybody had to study all night.  I was invited to sign.  These students were not directly involved in the matter but they were willing to put in the effort.  Teachers often encourage their students to have judgment and initiative.  What else can one ask of them?  Even if there is something more, it would be minor details.  So I signed immediately.

During this affair, I was an observer who was commenting from the sideline.  I know that the Chinese University teachers and colleagues who have direct responsibility are really in a hot kitchen right now under a great deal of pressure.

In this age of populism, the media will accuse us without cause for "shielding" the students and put the reputation of the entire school "on the line."  I can fully appreciate the difficulties that the university investigative committee had to cope with.  Director of Student Affairs professor Ho Puay-peng said during an interview with a reporter that if the need should arise, he was willing to pay for legal aid for the students, and he describe the student newspaper board as "having ideals, views and persistence."  I think that I only want to add that one should be tolerant towards students whenever possible.

Presently, almost every university says that it encourages students to have independent and critical thinking.  But when the students see everything like we do, we don't need more people to pay lip service.  By contrast, when the students see thinks completely different from us and the university can still show respect and tolerance, this will really prove that we were sincere about independent and critical thinking.

We all love our students.  When the students succeed and win fame and fortune, our love are like just adding a flower to the brocade.  By contrast, when the skies are covered by the storm and the students look lost and helpless, our love and the burden that we assume will be what the students need most of all.

Our generation loved the Chinese University a lot, because this was a place that once allowed to make mistakes, that allowed us to trip and that allowed us to stand back up after we tripped.  I hope that many years later, our students today can love the same Chinese University for the same reasons.


(SCMP)  Obscene and not heard.  By Liz Heron.  May 20, 2007.

Every day, every single newspaper and magazine published in Hong Kong is delivered to an office high above the bustling streets of Wan Chai.

Freshly-published books, CDs and DVDs are added to the pile and distributed among a platoon of 45 officers who scour the publications for signs of indecent or obscene material. The officers may go on to scrutinise newsletters and websites online, consider letters of complaint submitted by the public or fan out to inspect newsstands and shops on the streets below.

It is a job the enforcement officers of the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (Tela) have been doing for years from their headquarters on the 39th floor of Revenue Tower.

But recent, high-profile cases involving movie actress Carina Lau Ka-ling and Twins star Gillian Chung Yan-tung have thrown a new, more critical, spotlight on to the work of the censors and the Obscene Articles Tribunal they refer material to.

The cases brought calls for tighter restrictions and heavier penalties for magazines such as Easy Finder, which published the "peep pictures" of Ms Chung following 14 previous indecency convictions and went on to apply for a judicial review against the tribunal's ruling that the pictures were indecent.

Meanwhile, Tela has been deliberating about whether to take a landmark case to the Court of Appeal to seek a stiffer sentence and its commissioner Lorna Wong Lung-shi has pledged to request more full hearings, in which the tribunal has to meet in public and provide a rationale for its rulings, if there is any doubt about an interim decision.

Then, several weeks ago, the authority received complaints about a Chinese University students' journal involving a survey on students' sexual fantasies that included questions on bestiality and incest. It referred the case to the Obscene Articles Tribunal - and a fresh storm of controversy broke. The 11 editors of the Student Press denounced the decision, demanded a review of the obscenity laws, held street forums on press freedom and protested outside the Eastern Court - winning support for their case from academics, human rights agencies, women's groups and even religious bodies.

On Tuesday, the tribunal's interim ruling - that two issues of the Student Press were indecent at Grade II, which means they can only be distributed wrapped in plastic and with a warning that they must not be read by anyone under 18 - was officially released.

By Thursday, 184 complaints had been lodged with Tela against the Student Press but so had more than 2,000 complaints against the Bible after a website noted that the scriptures made references to incest, rape, cannibalism and violence. Tela swiftly rejected the Bible complaints on the grounds that it was part of human civilisation and not offensive to reasonable members of the community.

The furore has prompted intense questioning about the obscenity ordinance and procedures - even among the tribunal's own adjudicators. Dr Louis Shih Tai-cho , who is also vice-president of the Hong Kong Medical Association, said: "I think the government should try not to put their hands into too many things. Especially the recent issue of the student newspaper. It is a paper for students of the university and there should be more leeway and freedom. I think the Tela should sometimes be more selective in what they send to the tribunal. And I think the tribunal may not be reflecting the so-called norms of Hong Kong society today. In my opinion, the judgments being passed are too conservative."

Last year, the authority referred a total of 457 articles to the tribunal, which graded 241 - more than half - as Class III, or obscene, 144 as Class II or indecent, and 72 as Class I, which means they met acceptable standards. Over recent years it has also kicked back four cases graded as Class I by the tribunal for full hearings and challenged two court fines - one of HK$5,000 and one of HK$7,500. Magistrates doubled both fines on review.

Angela Luk Yee-wah, Tela's assistant commissioner (entertainment), said: "Over recent years, we have been more proactive in seeking reviews of OAT decisions in cases where we don't think the interim classification was appropriate. We have sought review of the penalties as well because we thought the penalties were too low and did not have sufficient deterrent effect. In the past two years, there have been more magazines - mainly entertainment magazines - that members of the public think have indecent covers or content. A number of them have included lots of indecent photos and articles. People can see them everywhere - in the convenience stores and the newsstands. They are the main cause of concern."

The tribunal is formed from a panel of 321 adjudicators, who are appointed from all walks of life and sectors of society and do not receive legal training. When a case is referred, it is first heard behind closed doors by two adjudicators picked at random from the panel, who make an interim ruling. If the defendant applies within five days, they will be given a full public hearing before four adjudicators and a magistrate, who will hand down a rationale with the judgment. Adjudicators follow five principles laid out in the Obscene Articles Ordinance when classifying material but do not have explicit guidelines on what is obscene, such as which parts of the body may be shown in a photograph. Following common law principles, they refer to previous judgments in making their decisions.

If the tribunal finds an article is obscene, Tela will prosecute the publisher in the courts, where, if convicted, the penalty will be set by a magistrate. Although the maximum penalty for repeated publication of indecent material is an HK$800,000 fine and a one-year jail sentence, the highest fine that has been imposed to date is HK$50,000.

Calls for an overhaul of the system are now coming from both liberalisers and conservatives.

Yolanda Ng Yuen-ting, spokeswoman for the Women's Rights Association, said: "Of course, the highest penalty is high enough. But every time when the case is put to the courts, the penalty is based on the previous case. The law on obscenity is more than 20 years old and it is time to review it and see if it really reflects the needs and values of society today.  "The media are pushing Hong Kong society in the wrong direction to have a more casual attitude to sex. So young people will think easy sexual relationships are part of normal life and that is what I am worried about."

Legislator Albert Cheng King-hon, chairman of Legco's panel on information technology and broadcasting, said the government needed to think carefully before applying for reviews of tribunal decisions.  "Of course, the government has the right to appeal," he said. "But by appealing against their decisions, you are casting a no-confidence vote on the tribunal system. I think the appeals system should safeguard the defendant rather than the government."

Media ethics expert Professor Kenneth Leung Wai-yin, of Chinese University's journalism department, said there had been concerns following last year's Gillian Chung hearings that the tribunal was not independent enough and might be responding to public pressure.  "Miss Chung came out to complain, crying and so forth, then even the chief executive came out and said something and then the groups came in, the women's groups and the religious groups," he said. "It seemed to be that everyone was having some kind of public hearing on this particular magazine.  Whether or not the tribunal could rule independently under those circumstances becomes a question. It seems that the subject material may not be at the level of indecency if you look at the pictures in question and compare them with those in previous hearings."

Meanwhile, the student editors are comparing their own case to some of the more bizarre judgments that litter the tribunal's history, such as the decisions in 1995 to ban an advert depicting Michelangelo's David because of nudity concerns and to require New Man, a statue by world-renowned sculptor Elizabeth Frink, to wear a cardboard fig-leaf.

Both the notorious David ruling - ridiculed by a judge as making Hong Kong "the laughing stock of the world" - and the order imposing a modesty cover on the statue, were subsequently overturned on appeal. A further eccentric decision came in the wake of the two reversals the following year.  A slide in a talk at the Museum of Art showing Edouard Manet's Le Djeuner sur l'herbe, a landmark work of the Impressionist movement which today epitomises the acceptable mainstream of visual art, was referred to the tribunal and branded "unsuitable for children".

First-year law student Melody Chan, one of the 11 Student Press editors, said: "I have to say that such rulings are really silly - and I am also referring to our own ruling. They didn't give any details about what was wrong with the two pages. I think they should make the rulings on the magazine more specific so that we know what is wrong. And they didn't really look at the whole publication. We do not agree that this is a proper way to classify a publication."

Miss Chan added that the fact that some members of the tribunal had spoken to the media before the interim finding was formally announced had cast doubt on the independence of the ruling.

Tela's answer is simple - it is already conducting a review of the ordinance. "We began the review a few months ago," said Ms Luk. "People have been asking for higher penalties so that is an area that we are looking into. We will be conducting a consultation exercise and we hope to release it very soon."

With the Easy Finder case due to come back to court next month and the students seeking a review of their case, they will certainly have plenty to talk about.