The Lennon Wall at the University of Auckland contains messages in support of Hong Kong protestors and in some cases pamphlets with a pro-democracy element. Photo: Supplied

Analysis: New Zealand universities have become the battleground for debates on free speech and foreign interference. Laura Walters reports.

Universities are being reminded of their obligations to uphold and protect the fundamental democratic freedoms, as tensions flare over pro-Hong Kong protests and issues of free speech and assembly.

Similar to their counterparts across the ditch, New Zealand’s universities are becoming the battleground for some of this generation’s greatest debates, including foreign interference – particularly regarding China’s rise in the region – and the state of freedom of speech.

Universities have a statutory and moral obligation to act as the critic and conscience of society, and this includes upholding these core values.

However, events in recent days have raised questions about where the universities stand on these issues.

A physical altercation at the University of Auckland between protestors, and the cancellation of a controversial Tiananmen Square event have again focused the country’s attention on how universities react in times when freedoms are tested.

Tensions flare over Hong Kong

Over the past week, a group of University of Auckland students have created a ‘Lennon Wall’, in support of the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong.

The Lennon Wall was borne out of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement protest, where a wall was filled with pro-democracy messages.

The wall at the university included pro-independent judiciary signs and photos from the Tiananmen Square massacre signalling pro-democracy sentiment. But the messages were covered up with pro-Chinese Communist Party messages and the Chinese flag. The wall was then removed.

The same thing happened to the ‘Lennon Wall 2.0’. A third iteration of the collage of pro-Hong Kong pamphlets now stands at the university.

On Monday afternoon, rising tensions between Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese students culminated in a short, verbal and physical altercation on the University of Auckland campus.

“Despite our fear we will still stand up to those people who want to mute our view. We will let them know that’s not the way it is.”

A video shows masters student Serena Lee was pushed by a male student. She then fell to the ground.

Lee told Newsroom she had been leading pro-Hong Kong protests in Auckland in recent weeks and had plans for further action at the university. When seeking permission to erect the Lennon Wall she had also warned university staff the situation could escalate. However, it took about 10 minutes for campus security to arrive after the altercation.

This incident would not stop Lee and the group of pro-Hong Kong students from expressing their views, but some students in her group, who were on student visas, were scared of what could happen when they returned to Hong Kong, especially if they were widely identified in the videos now circulating online.

“Despite our fear we will still stand up to those people who want to mute our view. We will let them know that’s not the way it is.”

Lee, who is a New Zealand citizen, said she was glad the university spoke in support of free speech, but it needed to walk the talk when it came to facilitating debate and democratic discussions. At the moment, the university did not have a clear framework, and it was difficult for students to gain a platform, she said.

“That is an integral part of robust, good democratic debate, you might have to tolerate views you might find abhorrent, that’s what free speech is about.”

This incident was a similar series of events to those that took place at the University of Queensland in Australia, last week. While the altercation in Auckland was not on the same scale, the conflict was borne out of the same issues, where each side said it was subject to intimidation tactics.

Given the continued unrest in Hong Kong, it is unlikely these issues will subside anytime soon, and the Education Minister has reminded universities of their role to facilitate and uphold free speech and the right to protest.

On Tuesday, Chris Hipkins said universities also had a responsibility to keep people safe, and make sure people were expressing their rights to free speech responsibly. Universities should be places of tolerance, he said.

“That is an integral part of robust, good democratic debate, you might have to tolerate views you might find abhorrent, that’s what free speech is about.”

University launches investigation

The incident at University of Auckland has led to a police investigation, and the university has launched its own investigation, into what it was referring to as a “conduct issue”.

A university spokesperson said they were aware of the incident and had been in touch with those involved.

Campus security had been briefed to ensure neither the safety nor security of any member of the university community was placed at risk because of these differences, the spokesperson said.

“The Vice-Chancellor expects all members of our community to abide by our commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech. This means that while people may have different opinions on a matter, they must express those opinions in a manner that respects the rights and opinions of others. The University makes it very clear to students and staff that harassment, bullying, and discrimination are completely unacceptable.”

Universities face another test of democratic freedoms, this time regarding pro-Hong Kong protests. Photo: Getty Images

The altercation has also led to a petition calling for a formal investigation and for the university to take appropriate steps to protect the health and safety of Hong Kong students.

“We are asking the university to ensure our safety and human rights are protected and upheld,” the petition says. The petition had been signed by more than 1000 people on Tuesday night.

Time for universities to step-up

ACT leader David Seymour, who is a strong proponent of free speech, said this was a leadership test for the University of Auckland.

If the university was “courageous” it would expel the student who physically assaulted another student, regardless of any impact that could have on the university’s relationship with China.

Seymour said at a time when the independence of universities was in question, and the state of free speech was up for debate, the heads of New Zealand universities needed to display leadership in protecting New Zealand’s democratic freedoms.

It was not enough for universities to talk about how they valued free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Like Lee, he said they needed to walk the talk.

The incidents at University of Auckland come in the same week as Newsroom revealed AUT cancelled an event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

AUT said the decision to cancel the event was due to a venue booking issue, but it came after Chinese government representatives from the Auckland Consulate requested AUT block the event.

“It’s a really important part of academic freedom, where universities are places where controversial issues can be debated and canvassed, and sometimes people aren’t going to like the nature of those debates. But actually that’s what university is all about.”

China experts, including Anne-Marie Brady and Rodney Jones, said this was an example of the university kowtowing to China so as not to cause offence.

Brady and Jones also called on universities to be more robust in standing up for core democratic freedoms.

This is not the first time the Chinese Government has appealed to universities in the hope they would shut down a contentious event.

Across the ditch, Australian universities are also grappling with the issue of foreign interference.

Concern about Confucius Institutes and other potential avenues for foreign interference have sparked discussion in Australia in recent years. And the attorney-general is now investigating whether Confucius Institutes hosted within universities needed to sign up to the country’s foreign influence transparency scheme.

The scheme, which was introduced in the previous term of government, required people and bodies acting on behalf of foreign governments and related entities to sign up to a public register.

These incidents involving Auckland universities have taken place against the backdrop of a national debate on free speech, and as New Zealanders grapple with the issue of foreign interference, and China’s rise in the region. They also come in the wake of Massey University’s decision to de-platform Don Brash due to what it saw as his racist views on Māori.

Hipkins said it was important universities always acted independently, and upheld the traditions around freedom of speech and the right to protest.

“It’s a really important part of academic freedom, where universities are places where controversial issues can be debated and canvassed, and sometimes people aren’t going to like the nature of those debates.

“But actually that’s what university is all about, and universities do have a responsibility to create an environment where that happens,” he said.

It will no longer be enough for universities to say they support free speech and freedom of assembly. The country will now be watching closely to make sure universities – especially those with a complicated line to walk in terms of international relations – are falling on the right side of history.

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