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?