Hong Kong university, student union in row over 'Wuhan pneumonia' email

Lingnan University in Tuen Mun.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

A publicly funded Hong Kong university has distanced itself from its student union and accused it of becoming "highly politicised" after the group referred to Covid-19 as "Wuhan pneumonia" in a mass email sent to their peers and refused to amend the term.

Lingnan University, which called the phrase "very inappropriate" and expressed regret over the union's refusal to heed management's request to change it, said it would suspend the student group's ability to send bulk emails and "reserve the right to take further actions".

In a statement to students and staff sent late on Tuesday, the liberal arts school in Tuen Mun said the move came after "some members of the student union" complained about the use of the term, which appeared both in the email and the online survey it promoted.

"The university advised the [student union] that their ... term for Covid-19 has clearly offended some members of the university, and urged them to revise the term and use the official name of Covid-19," the statement read.

"The university regrets that the [union] refused to accept this request."

Lingnan University’s student union has lost its ability to send bulk emails via the school’s servers. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Management went on to accuse the union of "becoming highly politicised … in recent years", saying it "failed to carry out its function as a bridge between the students and the university."

"The statements and positions they represent entail reputational and legal risks for the Lingnan community at large," the university said.

Last Thursday, the student union issued a survey to its members about a new university requirement that students living in hostels during the upcoming academic year either be vaccinated or screened for the coronavirus every two weeks.

Most local universities have recently rolled out similar requirements, with at least two requiring that all people on campus - not just those living in dormitories - be inoculated or undergo regular testing.

Although the union referred to the virus as Covid-19 in the English-language version of the survey, it used the term "Wuhan pneumonia" in the Chinese-language version.

In a response to management, the union's leadership issued a Wednesday statement saying they felt "deeply regretful and frustrated" over the university's decision.

The union argued it had used the term "Wuhan pneumonia" for more than a year without complaint, and that it was "not intended to offend or stigmatise anyone" but rather for "easy understanding for many Hongkongers".

"Management's actions have effectively cut off communication channels between the administration, union and students, and are unfavourable for discussions about campus affairs," the union said.

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The World Health Organisation in February 2020 named the novel coronavirus disease "Covid-19", saying it hoped to avoid referring to any specific geographical locations to prevent stigmatisation.

More recently, it has renamed the virus' variants using Greek letters to de-emphasise the locations in which they were first detected.

In March last year, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology president Wei Shyy hit out at the school's student union after it referred to the disease as "Chinese pneumonia" in a statement, with Shyy warning it could "promote discrimination".

Lingnan University's warning over legal risks relating to the student union is not a first. Management at Chinese University and the University of Hong Kong - in February and April, respectively - distanced themselves from their student unions over concerns related to the Beijing-imposed national security law.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.