Law & Crime Opinion Politics & Protest

The Phantom of the Opera revisited… at a Hong Kong university?

Was there ever really a Phantom of the Opera? No doubt the Paris Opera was and is a complicated building. Also, 19th century theatres went in for complicated effects requiring extensive space and machinery under the stage.

But all the same, where would such a person obtain the necessities of life? How would he eat, bath, and toilet?

I have similar misgivings about the idea of a Hunchback of Notre Dame, hiding in an impenetrable maze in one of the towers with his girlfriend. A romantic idea, but the cathedral is surely not that complicated.

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Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

When it comes to the Polytechnic University, recently surrounded by police officers, I am not so sure. During my career as a judge of student debates (qualifications: native speaker, car, persuadable) I visited all Hong Kong’s universities. The Poly U stood out as an easy place to get lost in (and having the most outrageously expensive car park).

It is not an easily navigable structure. I am quite prepared to believe that someone could elude detection more or less indefinitely on the campus. He (it is always a he in this sort of story) would be able to nip out at night in search of food and plumbing, returning at dawn to his place of concealment, and await his chance to drop a chandelier on an unsuspecting audience.

After the major evacuation of the campus we were offered a variety of figures for the number of people still in residence, ranging from zero to about 30. It was also reported that some people were still finding their way in, and hence, perhaps, also out. Every time it was announced that the campus was now empty reporters managed to find an interviewee who was still inside.

The traditional way of ending a siege was through negotiation. The besiegers would bombard or undermine the defences until there was in their view a “practicable breach” through which an assault, if attempted, would probably succeed.

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Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

At this point the besiegers would invite the defenders to surrender, usually with some added inducement: they would be allowed to leave, possibly with their weapons, or at least with their flags, and go free, possibly with the condition that they took no further part in the war.

The situation at the Poly U was more difficult, because there was no visible leader of the defenders with whom to haggle, if indeed there still were defenders. The police besiegers nevertheless followed the historical precedent by offering a dignified exit: names and pictures to be taken but no arrests.

That is a reasonable carrot. The stick, in the traditional arrangement, was that if the attackers were forced to assault the breach and succeeded then they would massacre the garrison. This was hardly possible in the case of the Poly U, if only because we did not know whether there was actually a garrison or not. What the police offer does show is that it is possible to negotiate with a group which has no visible leader. You announce a move, and wait to see what the response is.

This has proven beyond our political leaders, who have wailed frequently over the last six months that the protesters have no leaders that they can hold talks with. Well the latest elections have fixed that.

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Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Our glorious leader Carrie Lam has commented that the election results have attracted “various analyses and interpretations”. She added that “quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society.”

Well quite. The question is which aspects of the current situation are the problem. And now there is no need for this to remain a mystery to Mrs Lam. More than 300 district councillors now exist who were elected with the “five demands” on their programme, and in some cases with nothing else.

So she has plenty of people to talk to, if talking is what she wants to do, and plenty of people to listen to, if she would like a new experience.

Meanwhile, the pro-government group in Legco managed to insert a measure of venomous fatuity into the proceedings by punishing the two universities which had the misfortune to be geographically convenient to major roads. Funding bids for two projects – one at Chinese U and one at the Poly U – were withdrawn after legislators had expressed “concerns”.

Which legislators? The government is not saying. We were treated to a bit of doublespeak from Ho Kai-ming, of the Pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Ho Kai-ming. “The Federation of Trade Unions and I support the development of universities,” he said.

But he was concerned that the new buildings proposed at the Chinese University of Hong Kong would be close to the University MTR station and a highway, and thus posed dangers. He was apparently referring to previous protests at the university, at which protesters threw items onto the railway and the Tolo Highway.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

This is silly. There must be easier ways of avoiding future student disorder than redesigning all the local campuses with a view to reducing the opportunities for undergraduate disruption of key transport links. Would Mr Ho like to move the Poly U? It would probably be cheaper to move the tunnel.

No doubt the management of the Poly U are lamenting the unlucky stroke of urban planning which placed them astride the Cross-Harbour tunnel when other urban universities can only aspire to blockages of trivial streets like Junction Road or Tat Chee Avenue. Among the country dwellers, denizens of the Chinese University are now paying a price for their convenient proximity to the railway and possession of their own station.

On the other hand, I have listened for years to staff from the University of Science and Technology complaining that the campus is in the middle of nowhere, miles from the urban fleshpots and even from decent shopping. Well, every cloud has a silver lining and you folks are now looking at one. Middle of nowhere; nothing to sabotage. Give that university some money.

The Phantom of the Opera revisited… at a Hong Kong university?