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article imageStudent backlash in Hong Kong independence row

By Anthony WALLACE, Aaron TAM (AFP)     Sep 7, 2017 in World

Hong Kong students have accused their universities of suppressing freedom of speech after banners and signs calling for the city's independence from China were taken down from campuses.

The move has fuelled fears that freedoms are being squeezed in the semi-autonomous city and that Beijing is tightening its grip in a range of areas, from politics to media and education.

Since the failure of mass Umbrella Movement rallies to win democratic reform in 2014, some young campaigners say they want to see Hong Kong split completely from the mainland, a concept that infuriates Beijing.

The latest row began on Monday when a large black banner reading "HK Independence" appeared at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It is not clear who put it up.

The student union there said it was taken down the same day.

A letter from the university's office of student affairs Tuesday, which was posted on the student union's Facebook page, warned pro-independence views violated Hong Kong law and said any more "improper" items would be removed.

"The related opinions have violated relevant Hong Kong legislation, and violate the school's consistent and absolute opposition of Hong Kong independence," the letter said.

The student union questioned how putting a political opinion went against Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of speech.

In a statement it said it felt "deep regret" at the move.

"The union will do its utmost to safeguard students' autonomy and freedom of speech," the statement added.

Another large black banner and over 200 small posters calling for independence were still up at the university's campus Thursday.

Multiple university unions said pro-independence signs had been taken down from their "Democracy Walls" -- areas managed by students and used to express political opinions.

A statement from the student union at the Education University of Hong Kong strongly condemned the school for "intervening in students' autonomy and suppressing freedom of speech".

The Open University student union said the removal of signs showed institutions had "overstepped their authority" in a statement.

But mainland Chinese students at CUHK said they agreed with the move.

"These comments make me feel uncomfortable and isolated from Hong Kong," one 22-year-old who gave his name as Horan told AFP.

Another mainland Chinese student who did not want to be identified put up anti-independence signs at the university Thursday.

"Hong Kong cannot be taken away from China, it's a part of China," he said.

A video posted on Facebook by citizen journalist platform Socrec Tuesday showed a woman speaking English and Mandarin Chinese -- the dominant language in mainland China -- angrily ripping down posters at CUHK depicting Hong Kong's skyline on fire with the words: "Fight for our homeland, fight for Hong Kong independence".

The city was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" deal that allows it rights unseen on the mainland, but there are growing fears those liberties are disappearing.

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