Wednesday, December 04, 2019

What about the students?

Now that we have the campus back, a lot of work is going on cleaning it up, checking for damages, fixing it up so that we can get back to work.  On the other hand, the staff are frenetically working around the clock to get the students to finish their studies for the current (first) term, and to get ready for the coming (second) term. It is all part of the fire-fighting in response to the conflagration that consumed our campus.  As intense and all-consuming as it is, it will be over in a few months.  The garbage will be cleared away soon enough.  The broken glasses will be replaced.  The stolen and burnt tables and chairs will be replaced.  The burnt walls will be cleaned or re-faced.  The broken locks and door will be fixed.   The students will complete their first term, and then start their second term more or less as usual.  And all will be back to normal.  Or will we? 

Many students are deeply traumatised.  Surely those who participated in the blockade feel defeated.  Some must be despondent.  Many have been arrested and may be prosecuted.  Some may go to jail for lengthy sentences.  Not just for PolyU, but also for many other universities, colleges, even secondary schools.  Many who were involved but escape legal trouble will not feel much better.  

Many who were not directly involved will also be deeply affected.  Many foreign students have returned home, some never to return.  Their home countries may hesitate to send their students to Hong Kong again.  

Students from Hong Kong may worry about returning to campus.  They may feel the university has not protected them and the campus well enough.  They may have lost their faith in the established authorities in general. They may have acquired a much more pessimistic outlook in life.  It has been said that many students turned aggressive and violent because they felt peaceful protests do not work, that they have no other choice but to be aggressive and violent.  Now their “last hope” turns out to be futile as well.  Now what?  

Many people are trying to punish the universities, by with-holding needed funding for needed renovations,  improvements, and expansions. Some have written off a whole generation of youths.  Some made the insane proposal of shutting down the universities and sending all students to the Mainland.  They do not seem to recognise that the majority of the university students and most of the staff did not participate in the violence, and do not deserve to be punished.  This is a time to rebuild.  The society needs a new generation of young people with a positive, constructive outlook.  It is suicidal for a society to turn a whole generation into enemies.  It may feel good for a while for some to extract “revenge” after the conflagration.  But in the end it is the whole society that suffers. 

Even if some students have committed crimes or other mistakes, they are still our students to be taught, to be educated.  They are not our enemy.  They remain our children, our students, our responsibilities.  

And that is just the students.  What about the staff?  Most of the staff did not participate in the uprising.  Many have tried to comfort the students under stress.  Many have tried to convince the students to stay non-violent.  It is the staff who will have to continue to teach the students while staying off the campus.  It is the staff who will have to face the students who will return.  It is the staff who will have to comfort those who are scared and worried, calm those who are angry, encourage those who are despondent. And rebuild the community. 

When a group of people goes through a difficult time together.  Particularly if they can overcome the challenge working hard together with a sense of purpose.  It will forge a great sense of community, with a distinctive identity.  What purpose do we have as a university?  As the society of Hong Kong? What kind of identity do we want, as a university?  As Hong Kong?

This challenge to rebuild a university community, to rebuild the Hong Kong community, is much harder than cleaning up a campus.  And much more important.  Are we up to it?    How do we even begin?  It is hard.  But do we have a choice not to?

Saturday, November 30, 2019

PolyU 2.0

It appears that the occupiers have left our campus.  The fire fighters have removed the dangerous goods.  The police have finished collecting evidence.  Finally, our management has re-taken control of the campus.  This does not mean we can return to campus.  Presumably, the campus is still hazardous, with broken glasses, rotting food, generally unhygienic environment, unknown effects of tear gas, … 

Hence the main campus is still blockaded, this time from the inside, preventing entrance, and guarded by 30 additional security guards provided by some external agency.  

I circumnavigated the main campus this morning (Saturday, November 30, 2019).  The entrance at Core Y is still completely blocked.  

The slopes behind core Z look ominous, even in broad day night.  

The south side is completely blocked off.  

And manned by many security guards. 

The good thing is that they do not look too tense.  

The foot-bridge leading to Core D is still completely blocked.  

The foot-bridge leading to Core P is also blocked.  

But Core M is now visible from the bridge - since the roof of the bridge has been burned off.

The campus looks bad.  But it could have been worse.  I shudder to imagine what it would look like had the police actually stormed the campus to capture the more than a thousand people inside.   

As bad as it looks, I think the damage is mostly superficial.  The garbage and rotting food can be cleared away quickly.  The broken glasses and destroyed furniture can be replaced fairly quickly if we have the money.  Some of the damages caused by the fires and flooding may take more time.  The residues of the teargas may also take time.  But much of the campus can be re-opened fairly quickly. 

If we have the will, and I think we do, we can resume operations fairly quickly.  Many people are in fact quick eager to return, to help to clean up, to resume.  

Such a trauma cause much damage, physically and psychologically.  But it also gives us a chance to see who is a leader, who can deal with challenges with a positive attitude, who can be counted on when the situation is difficult, who can come up with creative solutions to problems, who can help the team achieve our goals.  

Shared intense experiences can forge a strong identity and sense of belonging.  What kind of identity are we going to forge for our university through this experience?  It is up to us.  God help us with the recovery. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Hong Kong does not deserve a bloody revolution - yet

Both the blue and the yellow side of Hong Kong agree on one thing - the government is terribly incompetent.  To the Yellow it is so because the government insists on treating the political issue as a matter of public security.  To the Blue it is so because the government has not been able to suppress the uprising.  

The opening up of the political process for wider participation, which was promised, has not happened.  The police is getting increasingly brutal.  The housing situation is absurd and hopeless.  Upward mobility has become just a pipe dream for so many. And so the list of ills goes on. 

We used to be so proud of our orderly, peaceful massive protest marches. Yet even when millions of people come out to the street to protest, paralysing all the traffic on the north side of Hong Kong Island, the government did not budge a bit.  Instead, it arrogantly pushed ahead with a hugely unpopular, terrible law of extradition, dismissing the peaceful protests as just so much noise.  It really pissed off the people

Some desperate people pushed harder, physically.  The police fired tear gas.  Some protesters started throwing bricks.  More tear gas, rubber bullets, more powerful weapons.  Some protesters started throwing fire bombs, and even more lethal stuff.  And we ended up with massive disruption of traffic, and the siege of universities.  Now some protesters are claiming that violent revolution is the only way forward.  It seems the both sides got sucked into more and more violence, bit by bit.  It was not something consciously planned after careful and clear thinking and strategising. 

But is Hong Kong really so desperately bad that we must fight on the streets with our lives on the line?   Judging from the actual behaviour, not the rhetoric,  of the majority of the protesters, it is painfully clear that the even the majority of the protesters on the street and at the siege of the universities think no.  Most were afraid to go to jail.  Most were scared of being hurt.  Most curious is that many of those who advocate violence were not on the frontline themselves. Yes, the situation is bad.  The government is incompetent, even operating in bad faith.  The police is brutal and arbitrary.  But it is not so bad that we should kill ourselves - yet. 

Hong Kong remains one of the freest societies in the world. We can come and go as we please, as long as we can afford it. We can criticise pretty much everybody, even the government, even the police, without having to go to jail, yet. We even have some elections.  We would like more, of course.  But it is not like we have none.  We enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world.  We can go to good universities if we have good academic results, or if we are rich.  

Yes, the situation is deteriorating in many aspects.  The establishment is trying to tighten control, to restrict participation in the political process, to control what we learn and what we say, exploitation is getting worse.  We have to be vigilant. We have to have the courage to speak up. We have to fight to participate in the political process.  We have to be willing to pay some price.  To suffer a bit in terms of job and business opportunities.  We can refuse to do business with the people who support the oppressors.  We have to fight in the media.  We have to fight in the elections.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Violent Leadership

The Siege of PolyU gave me a closer look of the leadership of the violent protests. Starting from the first day of the siege on Monday, Nov 11 to Saturday, Nov 16, I went back to campus every day to have a look at the campus, until the conflagration starting Saturday evening.  I checked out the barricades,  the damage, and the organization.  I listened to the conversations among the protesters, in the chatrooms, and the pronouncements.  I observed the weapons, tactics and justifications.  

The level of violence escalated day by day.  Bows and arrows were used more and more.  More and more powerful means were adopted to throw petrol bombs.  The violence grew more and more lethal.  Violence is like a drug.  You depend on more and more of it - until it kills you.  You are not aware of the destructive effects on you when you are in the middle of it - until it is too late.  But it is much more visible to people who observe form the outside. 

The damages to the campus intensified as the days go by.  More and more graffiti.  More and more broken glasses.  More and more classrooms and offices broken into.  More and more tools, food, supplies, materials, chemicals stolen.  Bit by bit they are killing the university.  It is not just the hardware.  Our students are hurt, physically, mentally and spiritually.  Our staff are discouraged.  The longer we have to stay away, the more the spirit, the relationship, the community dies.  People look for alternatives.  One day, the university is no more.  Whether intentionally or not, they are killing our university.  

Order deteriorated as the days go by.  Canteens and toilets got messy.  Many people do not seem to know that was going on.  Usually some people on the front line decided to do something, and expected the rest to follow and provide support - even when the rest did not have a chance to participate in the decision making, and may not agree with the new direction or tactic.  Many feel pressured to support more and more violent tactics because they did not wish to be considered to have abandoned those on the frontline.  It is not just those who are inside the siege who feel pressured to follow.  Many on the outside do not agree with the violence, yet feel pressured to not abandon those on the front line.  Some may consider this kidnapping of the cause. 

It is clearer and clearer that violence in this protest movement is not justified.  It leads to nothing but senseless destruction, gives the protest a bad name, alienates people who might have been neutral or even moderately supportive, and gives the establishment an excuse to delay or even cancel the imminent elections.  

Peaceful and lawful means may be slower.  In the long one it takes more determination but may be much more powerful and long-lasting.  

Friday, November 15, 2019


Our campus, like many other campuses around Hong Kong, have been taken over by protesters.  

It appeared that on Monday, 11 Nov, protesters threw stuff down to the road leading to the cross-harbour tunnel from the footbridge between our campus and the Hung Hom Station.  The police pursued some of protesters into the campus.  Protesters started to barricade entrances to campus.  Thus started the siege. 

This is now the fifth day of the siege.  All entrances are barricaded.  

People can still generally snake through the barricades at the northern entrance (near Y block) and the southern (main) entrance (near A block).

Some businesses consider “blue” have been damaged.  There are lots of graffiti.  Some classrooms have been broken into - apparently for the furniture to be used as barricades and road blocks.  

The main targets seems to be the road leading to the cross-harbour tunnel, and Chatham Road.  Both are blocked completely most of time.  

Occasionally, some brave souls had been able to move the obstacles aside for a few vehicles to sneak through.  But more obstacles are thrown down from the bridges soon enough so that traffic is stopped again. 

Dr. Sun Yat-Sin’s statue has been given a gas mask. 

Most offices and the majority of the classrooms and laboratories seem intact.  They do not appear to be targets of the protesters.  They seem civil towards the staff and students who brave the siege to come to campus.  Some security guards can be seen.  I have met quite a few colleagues who come back for various reasons.  To retrieve important documents, to run critical experiments, to check on the integrity of the office, to comfort the students, to provide medical help, …

When can we have our campus back?  I understand protesters consider this siege a necessary evil in the fight for freedom and justice.   But education is also necessary for both the short term and the longer term future of everyone.  In the short term, students need their studies continued.  In the longer run, the society is going to need the universities to function when this is over - and this fight is going to be over one way or another, sooner or later.  Damaging and killing the universities is not going to do anyone any good. 

So, please, can we have our campus back?

Thursday, November 14, 2019

What now?

It was not too long ago when we we were so proud of our peaceful protest marches.  Only about 5 months.  What have been achieved in these 5 months of escalating violence?  

Thousands of young people have been arrested.  Many of them have their careers, lives destroyed before they barely started.  Some have died, under suspicious circumstances.  Many families, relationships, long term friendships broken.  Animosity between locals and mainlanders have grown tremendously.  

The police used to be respected, in fact, considered one of the best in Asia; now it is public enemy number one.  The government was at least considered fairly effective; now it is despised and considered incompetent by all sides.  

No one is completely without blame.  

The protesters are fighting for freedom and justice.  Yet some have beaten up people who disagree.  Some have tried to seriously hurt other people, to the extend of cutting other people’s throat, or burning with flammable liquid.  Many have complained and even exaggerated the violence against them; while ignoring or even justifying the violence they impose on others.  These are not honourable actions befitting someone who seeks freedom and justice.  

The police have a duty to ensure public safety, maintain effective traffic flow, catch people who violate the law.  Yet they have also, evidently, vented frustration beyond reason, insulted people with malice, used excessive force to brutalize, beaten people even when they are already down and subdued.  These are also not honourable actions befitting someone maintaining order and justice.  

The government, needless to say, is the main culprit in this mess.  They started the latest round of confrontations.  Their intransigence pushed the police against the people, induced the escalating violence.  They seem totally incapable of resolving the conflict.  From all angles, it is failed governance.  

Nobody claims to want this to happen. Everyone says they want this to stop.  But how?

One way, perhaps, is for all sides to stop and reflect.  For any organization to survive, let alone prosper, it must be able to improve itself.  Start with soul searching towards itself.  What have we done that is not honourable?  Do we have the courage to admit it and the determination to change?  If an organization, be it a group of protesters, the police, or the government, if it does not have this capability, it has no right to survive, and will soon be discarded by history. 

Perhaps some people who are traditionally more objective could help, such as respected scholars and the church.  Unfortunately, many leaders of mainstream churches have been tainted too much already.  Many are so enamoured by their association with the powerful and established that they have lost all credibility with the common people.  Many have been simply too fearful and aloof that they have lost relevancy.  

While the protagonists do their own soul searching, perhaps there are still some who are respected and trusted enough who can step in and mediate?  Perhaps someone can invite them if they are too modest to volunteer?

People of faith are supposed to be the salt and the light of the world.  Stepping in to help the people of a society suffering in a debilitating conflict is surely in line with faith in a God of justice and love?

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

The people in central Tanzania

We came to a couple of villages ~70 kilometres west of the capital Dodoma in central Tanzania, together with our partner Tear Fund Tanzania, to look for a site where we may carry out a project in July 2020.  

Along the way, we encounter numerous acacias.  For many people, these are the iconic ‘African’ trees.  And cows crossing the road.  They show no respect for cars, taking their time to cross in front of you as they please.  

And then there are these immense baobabs. Most look dead and dry.  But a few have already sprouted small green shoots.  When the rain comes, they will certainly come back to life in a hurry.   

As soon as we got out of the small capital city of Dodoma, the low lying long huts appear.  They are shorter than the average person.  They all seem to be about 8 feet wide, and can be very long.  

When one enters one must lower ones head, and keep bending it down, unless if you are rather short.  There they put everything: bedding, clothings, cooking stoves, cats, goats, …  The walls and the roof appear to be separate structures.  

The walls are mostly mud bricks, very much like those in Rwanda.  The roof appeared to be thatched straw and mud, supported by a frame made of slender branches chopped off from small trees.  There is a gap between the top of the walls and the roof, to allow air to escape, making it cooler in the heat.  Thus they are less stuffy than the houses we encounter in Rwanda.  

Some cannot actually been described as houses.  One had only one side made of a mud wall. All 3 other sides are simply lattices of slender branches, offering little protection agains the wind and the rain.  A 10 person family cramps into a space of no more than 8 feet by 16 feet.  Imagine that.  

The cook with a ubiquitous 3-stone stove. 

These are the people that Tear Fund is trying to help.  They work with local churches to set up Self-Help Groups, offer than training and organization, helping them to save enough money to buy solar panel systems, …  We plan to bring a team of students here to install solar panels and indoor wiring for houses, similar to what we have been doing in Rwanda, Cambodia and Myanmar.  We will have to make some adaptations based on the local environment.  We are confident that we can do it, and are excited about the possibilities of working with Tear Fund.  We will be back.