Foreign Affairs

Uni wraps up investigation into Hong Kong protest

The University of Auckland investigation into a Hong Kong protest on campus has wrapped up, but the students involved continue to feel the fallout. Laura Walters reports.

The University of Auckland has concluded its investigation into an altercation between students at the University of Auckland over a Hong Kong solidarity protest.

On Thursday, the university confirmed it had completed its investigation into the incident that took place on July 29, over the ‘Lennon Wall’ on campus. The incident involved students from Hong Kong and Mainland China, with differing views on the current situation in Hong Kong.

The heated discussion began over differences of opinion on the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong, which has morphed into mass protests and seen protestors effectively shutting down Hong Kong's airport.

Tensions between the two groups of University of Auckland students had been rising for about a week prior to the incident, and culminated in a short, verbal and physical altercation.

A video shows masters student Serena Lee was pushed by Edric Liu. She then fell to the ground.

Following the incident, the university and police launched separate investigations.

“We are committed to protecting freedom of speech and promoting respectful dialogue in the expression of views and the debating of ideas on all manner of subjects,” a university spokesperson said in a statement on Thursday.

“Discussion and debate, however robust, must not include abuse, aggression (in language or action) or bullying. We want our University community to be ‘safe, inclusive and equitable’ for everyone.”

University proctors carried out interviews with those involved, and said in light of the university's principles, and relevant regulations, “appropriate disciplinary action” had been taken.

“The university greatly values the diversity of our student body and the contribution of our international students to this. Despite differences of opinion that may occur, the University seeks to ensure that the student experience on our campuses is overwhelmingly positive.”

The university would not elaborate on the nature of the disciplinary action, saying whenever disciplinary action was taken, it remained private to the individuals. However, no one had been expelled.

Students involved said the university also asked them not to disclose the nature of the decision and any related processes.

“The university greatly values the diversity of our student body and the contribution of our international students to this.

“Despite differences of opinion that may occur, the University seeks to ensure that the student experience on our campuses is overwhelmingly positive.”

A police spokesperson said police had still not identified everyone who featured in the video footage of the incident, and the investigation was ongoing.

The international implications of this incident escalated significantly after the Chinese Consulate-General in Auckland released a statement criticising media reports of the protest, and saying it “expresses its appreciation to the students for their spontaneous patriotism”.

This was widely understood to be praise for those Mainland Chinese students who opposed the Hong Kong protestors.

“We guard that, that is part of who we are. And I think it is important for those that may take a different view that we are very clear on our expectations.”

A Chinese Embassy diplomat told Newsroom the statement from the consulate had been misinterpreted. The Consulate General was asking students to express their concerns in the proper way, in accordance with the law and regulations, he said.

“They are not sending this statement to support one side of the students. No matter whether they’re from mainland China or Hong Kong, they are Chinese students.”

The consulate's statement, along with other recent reports of China’s attempts to block a Tiananmen Square event at AUT, were enough to warrant an official rebuke from New Zealand.

In a rare move, Jacinda Ardern confirmed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade reiterated New Zealand’s position on freedom of speech, particularly on university campuses.

“We guard that, that is part of who we are. And I think it is important for those that may take a different view that we are very clear on our expectations.”

MFAT also raised concerns about recent statements from Chinese officials that suggested pro-Hong Kong protests should not occur, and that violence in protest would be justified.

The Chinese government then hit back at the official rebuke, claiming its actions were “beyond reproach” and calling on officials to “take off their tinted glasses” on the matter.

The 'Lennon Wall' on the University of Auckland campus is what kicked off the disagreement between the two groups of students. Photo: Supplied

This incident, and the subsequent investigations, have been marred with misinformation, which has added to the difficult position faced by students on both sides.

This misinformation and online speculation has been a consistent aspect of the Hong Kong protests, and related solidarity demonstrations in other countries.

The discussions and posts online have had a significant impact on the students involved.

Lee told Newsroom she had to change her contact details because she was “spammed” after her personal information was shared online.

Meanwhile, she is not sure about the processes followed by the university and police.

Police have not given her any timeframe for their investigation, are still yet to officially identify Liu, and the university told her they would not hand over any details of the students to police without a court order.

While the university has carried out its investigation, and told her they had taken disciplinary action against the other students’ misconduct, she was not told what action had been taken.

“I can’t say whether I’m satisfied or not,” she said.

“But if the conclusion is an email or letter that investigation is completed, I don’t think this is sufficient to make it clear what the consequences are if students don’t respect freedom of speech or academic freedom in the university.”

In the past two weeks, Liu has also felt the fallout from the incident.

There have been numerous posts on social media which variously claimed Liu had gone back to Mainland China to await the outcome of the investigation, that he had been expelled, or was receiving assistance from the consulate.

Liu confirmed none of these online claims were correct, saying there was a lot of “fake news” on Twitter.

Liu said he had also been subject to online threats. His details, including his picture, email, WeChat profile and private mobile phone number were posted online.

In a letter Liu wrote about the incident, titled “accident”, he said the private and family information of all the mainland students involved were posted online. Some received harassing phone calls.

"I am happy this thing is over," he told Newsroom.

"We can turn our attention back to study, as it has already wasted us a lot of time."

Liu said he was in New Zealand to learn, not for "political struggle".

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