By Justin Villamil
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily of Palatinate.
The Durham University Hong Kong Society’s (DUHKS) executive committee recently released a letter in the face of a story exposing their involvement in the censorship of a student conference.
The letter admirably affirms their commitment to the freedom of speech, however, their actions before, during, and after the censored conference do not. Instead of releasing defensive letters, the DUHKS should admit their mistake and get out in front of the issue.
As one of the writers of the original Palatinate article that broke the story and as a former Editor-in-Chief of the paper, I feel bound to respond to some of the spin the letter puts on.
The letter released glosses over a number of problems that Chris, my co-author, and I raised in our piece, and does not fairly address a number of concerns students have raised.
The claim that no substantial changes were made is absurd, and I can only assume that perhaps the DUHKS executives were not fully aware of what was happening – a point they raise themselves in the letter.
While they quote the initial contact made with the speakers at the event, they choose not to quote the final email sent, asking the speakers to restrict their comments away from anything “which seeks to weaken China’s national unity.” This email is dated the 12th November.
Additionally, the students involved were told beforehand about the restricted parameters of the debate and the speakers mentioned it to the audience before lecturing.
A telling quote we unfortunately did not manage to find space for in the original article was from attendee Matthew Gibson, which gives us a glimpse into the proceedings:
“Everybody in the Debating Chambers on that day was explicitly told that the Chinese embassy restricted the field of debate at the conference. Everybody was explicitly told Professor Peter Preston did not attend the event because under the parameters set by the society (and hence the Chinese government) he would not be able to give his academic opinion on what is happening in Hong Kong.”
Now the DUHKS executive committee turns around and claims that no substantial changes were made – a claim which should be insulting for discerning readers.
Furthermore, when interviewed, a representative of the DUHKS lied on the record about the attendance of Professor Peter Preston. This individual told us that he was ill, expecting, one can assume, that we would immediately give up in our research and not give it a second thought.
The DUHKS letter does level one fair criticism against our article, and that is that we mistakenly stated that a question and answer session was removed. It was in fact only shortened, however, all questions had to be pre-approved, which to my mind still smacks of censorship. We have published a correction with the original article.
The rest of the letter does a great job of shifting the blame from the DUHKS executives to the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). The DUHKS letter’s main defence here appears to be their ignorance, and I do not believe this is entirely misplaced. It may be fair to consider that the DUHKS’ organisers did not know about the actual changes until much later, when it was too late to halt the conference.
However, the fact remains that the DUHKS executive has actively tried to sweep these events under the rug through misinformation and misdirection. Instead of launching an increasingly desperate struggle to demonstrate “zero tolerance” for censorship, the executive should have taken a bolder stance.
The DUHKS is one of the largest and most vibrant societies in Durham, one brave enough to assist Durham’s umbrella protesters and run a controversial event like this in the first place. The DUHKS should have immediately apologized for their mistake and joined the voices against censorship. As they evidently intend to cower, deny everything, and wait for the storm to blow over, they are justifiably criticised.
And, of course, they are joined in this ‘let’s pretend it’s not happening’ tactic by the Durham Students’ Union and Durham University – two entities who claim to represent students and should be actively pursuing this. In this, the DUHKS is joining a rich tradition of hollow assurances and empty rhetoric.
Image: Chris Somers