After weeks of protests, anger and even death threats over a Mandarin language exam at Baptist University, campus seemed to have calmed down by the end of this week, when the school announced it was lifting the suspensions of two students, after the pair apologised to affected staff.
But for the two central figures, the saga’s denouement was not an act of surrender, as they try to refocus the debate back to what kicked it all off – the institution’s Mandarin language graduation requirement.
Speaking this week, student union president Lau Tsz-kei and Year Five Chinese medicine student Andrew Chan Lok-hang said their one-week ban from attending classes, and the public scrutiny during the row, would not stop them fighting to improve school policies.
“It is something right so I will continue to fight for it,” Chan said.
They were among about 30 students who stormed the school’s language centre on January 17 to demand more transparency for an exemption test introduced last year for a compulsory Mandarin module. Lau was filmed using foul language, but none resorted to physical violence.
The students were unhappy about a requirement, introduced in 2007, for local undergraduates to pass a Mandarin module to graduate.
With no such requirement for most universities in Hong Kong, many Baptist University undergraduates have called for the module to be scrapped. They say they should be free to choose what courses to take, especially with Mandarin already taught in primary and secondary schools.
Some 70 per cent of students who sat the test failed it, including a winner of a Mandarin speaking competition, leading students to question whether the evaluation was too harsh. The school said it would review the Mandarin requirement.
A week after the fracas in the language centre, the school launched an investigation into Lau and Chan, then suspended the pair before the probe was over. School chiefs said they posed a danger to the community.
But with criticism of university president Roland Chin Tai-hong’s handling of the matter mounting, the school lifted the suspensions a week later, after the two apologised to language centre staff in person. Disciplinary proceedings for the pair, and two other students, are still going on.
Chan in particular became a public enemy for many mainlanders, with hundreds of death threats sent to his Facebook account and to a Guangzhou hospital where he was doing an internship.
He was forced to put his internship on hold and return to Hong Kong.
The Chinese medicine student said he had moved out of the family home, living with a friend, so as not to endanger his relatives.
Watch: Baptist University Mandarin row boils over
“I can’t meet my family as frequently as before, maybe only twice a week,” he said.
Chan reported the threats to police, who said they would increase patrols near his home. But he said his family were still worried about his safety, and he was feeling depressed.
Some mainland media – spurred in part by his founding of Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis, which promotes the use of Cantonese – reported that Chan was a pro-independence activist.
But Chan vehemently denied that claim, saying he was merely interested in fighting for students’ rights and preserving Cantonese.
A top scorer in Chinese language on his secondary school leaving exam, Chan said he set up the group after realising teachers tended to criticise the use of Cantonese expressions in writing. He said his 20-strong group focuses on cultural activities such as writing competitions and distributing Lunar New Year couplets, the festive decorations whose Chinese characters convey good wishes for the year ahead.
Chan also said he was not against Mandarin per se, and that he often uses it to talk to his teachers.
He said he would learn from the whole experience, but would not give up on promoting Cantonese.
The other central figure in the episode, Lau said he accepted the criticism about how he handled the initial protest and acknowledged he could do better. But he would not apologise for the protest, saying students’ voices need to be heard.
Lau, 20, was not always so concerned about speaking up against what he sees as unfair.
The only child went to a well-ranked secondary school in Tsuen Wan, but his grades were inconsistent there; he was often more interested in playing basketball and computer games, or reading novels.
“I got this from falling down while playing,” he said, pointing to the scar on the right side of his forehead.
He said his political awakening came in 2012, when he took part in a protest against compulsory national education for public schools, intended to strengthen “national identity awareness” and nurture patriotism towards China. Two years later, he took part in the pro-democracy Occupy protests.
“I saw university students taking part in social movements and how universities are a place where there is the value of common governance by both teachers and students,” he said.
That, he said, motivated him to study hard, so he could go to university.
He said he chose to go to Baptist University as it had a culture of students standing up for what is right.
Lau cited students storming a meeting room back in 2015 to protest against Chin’s appointment following a short consultation held during the exam period. The school eventually added a few more consultation sessions, though Chin still got the job.
Looking back at the Mandarin furore, the Year One social science student said he was sorry that his attitude during the standoff could have made it harder for students to speak up in future, as they might worry about getting suspended themselves.
He said the university’s senate would discuss the Mandarin requirement at its next meeting on February 12, and that he believed school bosses’ willingness to review it was the fruit of their protest.