On Sept 7, during the Chinese University of Hong Kong “Democracy Wall” standoff, former student union leader Ernie Chow Shue-fung was seen calling mainland students “Chee-na” (Shina) — a racially charged derogative term for China and Chinese. The university issued a statement: “The university strongly condemns the student’s use of a derogatory slur against China to engage malicious personal attacks.” It was also reported that the university had already begun the process of investigating the incident, and would treat it with the utmost seriousness.
I would like to help CUHK authorities out by providing them with some recent examples of how similar incidents were treated in the United States, the freest country on earth.
In April, Harvard revoked admissions offers to at least 10 applicants whom administrators discovered had made offensive posts in a private Facebook messaging group. According to The Harvard Crimson, students in the group sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “pinata time”.
From the freedom of speech perspective, unlike Chow’s utterance that was in public and caused widespread resentment, these would-be Harvard students were merely communicating in private. Arguably no one knows about these chats and no one is harmed. But Harvard still decided to intervene since it knows that as a world-class university it is necessary to hold students to high standards.
But you would be wrong if you think that only Harvard is strict on this stuff. In the US, high-school students are also expelled for politically incorrect behavior.
In June, the Albany (California) School Board voted to expel a student over racist posts and memes on an Instagram account. The racist images were directed mostly at African-American female students. Images showed the girls’ basketball coach with a noose drawn around his neck.
According to local news media The Root, a female student at Albany High School originally discovered the Instagram account several months after its creation. Out of more than a dozen students who were accused of liking or commenting on the racist posts, three students were placed under school-board investigation for possible expulsion and a fourth received a temporary restraining order.
The expulsion was made under Section 48900.4 of the state education code, according to which a student may be recommended for expulsion if “the pupil has intentionally engaged in harassment, threats, or intimidation, directed against school district personnel or pupils, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to have the actual and reasonably expected effect of materially disrupting classwork, creating substantial disorder, and invading the rights of either school personnel or pupils by creating an intimidating or hostile educational environment.”
Chow’s “Chee-na” remarks were the perfect example of “an intimidating or hostile educational environment”. If a high-school student in the US can be expelled because of an Instagram post, Chow should definitely also be kicked out.
The Albany High School expulsion was by no means an isolated incident. A simple online search shows that many US high-school students are disciplined for inappropriate comments. Some of these disciplinary actions were challenged and later revoked but it shows that the US demands tough measures on all levels against behavior that is incompatible with society’s mainstream values.
A society functions better if its institutions are aligned in values. As we can see, in the US a core set of values are aligned from high school to university and then to the workplace and the political sphere. Despite the two-party system, most of US’s mainstream institutions apply more or less the same standards when it comes to this core set of values.
In Hong Kong, however, institutions such as those in the education system have one set of values while the Basic Law demands something different. This is the fundamental reason why our youth are confused and anxious. In society, as in backaches, pain is often caused by misalignment.
The author is a veteran current affairs commentator.