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The University of York Censors Chinese Student for Being Anti-CCP

Updated: Feb 22

This blog is authored by Clara Cheung, a Former Hong Kong District Councillor and a PhD candidate in Art History at the University of York.

Last week, I came across a troubling Instagram post about the censorship of a peaceful protest during a graduation ceremony at my school, the University of York. Intrigued, I sought further information from the article on the Voice of America Chinese (VOA) website referenced in the post.

Clara Cheung in Sheffield, South Yorkshire.

The report highlighted the actions of alumni Ma Youwei, who had recently obtained his Master's Degree in Education and Social Justice from the University of York. During the graduation ceremony on February 7, 2024, Ma decided to display the flag bearing the slogan "Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of Our Time" on stage as he received his degree.

The university's live stream of the event deliberately avoided capturing Ma's gesture. Prior to this, Ma had courteously emailed the university, inviting the Vice Chancellor to join him in displaying the Hong Kong flag on stage as a gesture of solidarity with Hongkongers. The university's response rejected Ma's invitation, deeming it inappropriate for the Vice Chancellor to participate in such a display, citing concerns that it might provoke different reactions and disrupt mutual respects within the institution.

It is unclear whether the university's email solely rejected the invitation for the Vice Chancellor to hold the flag together with Ma, or if it also denied Ma's right to express himself through the flag during the ceremony.  When I searched online to see if similar gestures have appeared in other universities, I found that many UK university graduates expressed their support to the university staff on strike during their graduation ceremonies in 2023.  Compared with many other protests during graduation, Ma’s was a mild one, and, more importantly, a peaceful one.  

While it's understandable that the Vice Chancellor may wish to refrain from displaying political affiliations publicly, allowing a graduate student to make a mild political statement peacefully would not tarnish the university's reputation. Ma's action merely involved holding an additional piece of fabric on the stage and did not disrupt the ceremony in any way. Considering Ma's studies at York, focused on Social Justice, and his background from the People's Republic of China (PRC), where freedom of speech is not protected, one would think the University of York would take pride in fostering a student willing to voice concerns for the suppression of Hong Kongers by the PRC.  

Liberal educators and school administrators would typically encourage students to engage with the world around them peacefully.  So, why did the administrators at the University of York do the exact opposite —  to censor Ma’s gesture?  The university's email response suggested concern that the flag's symbolic meaning might provoke anger. But who would get angry, and why?

The flag's message, "Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of Our Time," calls for action to secure autonomy and freedom for Hong Kong, a sentiment echoed by many around the world. However, it's evident that the only government likely to be angered by such a display is the PRC. So, why would administrators at the University of York be concerned about provoking the PRC?  Hints provided by VOA's news report shed light on the university's close ties with PRC diplomats. Even the York Chinese Students Association was reportedly established by the education department of the PRC embassy in the UK.

The University of York's decision to suppress Ma's peaceful protest represents a disheartening infringement on freedom of speech and expression. By prioritising political sensitivities over fundamental rights, the university administration not only failed to uphold the principles of academic freedom but also undermined the values of open dialogue and critical thinking that universities should champion. 

As a mature student from Hong Kong at the University of York, I am deeply moved by Ma Youwei’s support for Hong Kong’s democratic movement. In today's political climate, with the imposition of the National Security Law and the upcoming Article 23 further encroaching on the freedoms of Hongkongers, even those residing overseas hesitate to voice dissent against the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party in public.  It requires immense courage and a willingness to accept considerable personal risk for Ma to publicly articulate his stance.  Apparently, due to his previous demonstration related to the blank protest, Ma’s family in the PRC has already been harassed.  

Ultimately, the success of the censoring authority hinges on our collective silence. It is only when we cease to speak up that they achieve their objectives. In light of this, I firmly believe that the University owes Ma a clear explanation regarding the decision to alter the live-stream camera, resulting in his part of the graduation ceremony being lost to the public sphere.

Lastly, I urge the administrators of the University of York to reconsider their stance and collaboration with the PRC. Do they want to align themselves with the PRC in moulding “obedient” students who only say “Yes” to the totalitarian government, or do they aspire to nurture liberal-minded students who engage in critical thinking and have the courage to say “No” to dictators?

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