University of York accused of censoring student’s Hong Kong protest during graduation

The graduation livestream cut footage of a 27-year-old student who crossed the stage presenting a pro-Hong Kong flag

The University of York has been accused of censoring a Chinese student’s protest after cutting the live stream of a graduation ceremony after he held up a pro-Hong Kong flag.

27-year-old Kyle Ma help up a flag during his ceremony in Central Hall which read “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” in traditional Chinese script.

Used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, coverage of Kyle holding the flag was cut from the university’s livestream and replaced with footage of a banner.

As reported by i news, footage from the graduation ceremony on February 7th showed two projection screens which displayed a close-up camera angle of each student collecting their graduation certificate on stage.

For the 10 second duration where Kyle, walked on stage, picked up his graduation certificate and exited the stage at the opposite end, the livestream was interrupted and instead showed a generic image of the university’s logo on a banner.

Footage of the graduation ceremony uploaded to YouTube by the University of York also omits Kyle’s protest, with footage at 15:08 being replaced.

Comments on the video express confusion over the cut in the footage, with one viewer writing “Why isn’t ‘The Graduate’ showing at 15:08? Why were they censored out?”.

Kyle, who is originally from Shandong, also commented on the video from his personal account where he wrote: “At 15:08, this is me, ashamed to know that UoY sacrificed my courage and determination in exchange for appeasing their pro-Beijing cash cows.”

Another viewer wrote: “Where is the Graduate at 15:08? Shame on you York for censoring graduates!!!”.

Correspondence seen by i outlined that Kyle had notified University of York’s vice-chancellor, Charlie Jeffery, of his intention to protest peacefully the day before the ceremony, in line with university protocol.

An official responding on behalf of Charlie Jeffery declined Kyle’s invitation to hold the flag with him, but no intervention was made by the university to prevent Kyle from doing so alone.

A University of York registrar declined the invitation to participate in the protest and told Kyle: “whilst we can join together in expressing horror at human right violations, I’m sure you will appreciate that flags – and their associated symbolism – can elicit very different deep reactions, which could undermine this institutional position of mutual respect”.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader and one of several MPs sanctioned by China for criticising President Xi Jinping’s regime, said that this showed the University of York was “in hock to” Beijing.

He said it is “very sad and shows York University is scared of upsetting the Chinese government.” He added that it was “a sad indictment of the university authorities”.

Currently, the University of York hosts around 3,000 Chinese students, accounting for 56 per cent of its total international student numbers.

Kyle told i that most of his peers on the social justice and education masters were Chinese nationals, explaining that he believed that this may have played a “huge role” in the university’s decision to cut the footage.

Explaining his actions, he said that his decision to wave the flag was as a peaceful symbol of solidarity with the people in Hong Kong after actions by the Chinese Communist Party on its opposers in the autonomous region.

A spokesperson for the University of York said: “The university recognises the strength of feeling students may have on global issues, and, as an organisation that defends civil liberties, we support freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest.

“While we recognise that students do wear or hold protest materials in graduation ceremonies, it is protocol to change camera angles during live broadcasts if there is potential disruption on stage. Graduations are primarily an opportunity for our community to come together to celebrate and recognise all the achievements of our hard-working students.”

The Government has since acknowledged that the incident could lead to overseas “interference”, saying it was reviewing its protections for UK universities.

A Government spokesperson said: “Our approach of engaging robustly and directly with China is in the UK’s national interest.

“We recognise concerns about overseas interference in our universities which is why we are reviewing how we support our academic sector to keep their research secure.

“We will continue to take steps to significantly strengthen the UK’s protections from overseas interference in our higher education sector, helping to safeguard intellectual property and sensitive research.”

The incident is not the first of alleged Chinese influence at the University of York. It was revealed on Friday that vice-chancellor Charlie Jeffery welcomed the Chinese ambassador, Zheng Zeguang, to the UK last year and told Chinese students at the university “to keep in mind General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ardent teachings, adhere to patriotism and serving the country”.

With President Xi has previously accused of overseeing human rights abuses in China, the UK Government now faces growing pressure to designate the country a formal “threat” following national security concerns.

It was also revealed that the University of York did not publicise details of the Chinese ambassador’s visit on its official website or UK social media as it has done before with other foreign delegations. The university instead shared a post including photographs and quotations on its WeChat page for Chinese students.

This is not the first time the University of York has been accused of failing to uphold pro-democracy campaigners’ free speech, with an incident in 2019 resulting in students from Hong Kong being ordered to take down a Freshers’ Fair display after Chinese students claimed to have found it offensive.

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Featured image via YouTube and LinkedIn/Kyle Ma