As Hong Kong’s academic year begins under security law, it’s unclear what can

A monument to freedom, the “Goddess of Democracy” has long been a symbol of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and a testament to the freedoms the semi-autonomous city has enjoyed compared to the rest of China.

They had been expected to protest again this year. But with coronavirus halting the opportunity for public assembly, Beijing imposed a new national security law on the city in June, before the unrest could resume. The law, which bypassed Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature, bans subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces, with severe prison terms for anyone found in contravention.

From when the legislation was first mooted, the government has always insisted it will only target a handful of individuals and not have a widespread impact on Hong Kong’s political freedoms.

However, since it came into force on June 30, some 24 arrests have been made, including four student activists over social media posts. It has been used to bar multiple candidates from standing for election, political parties have disbanded and once ubiquitous protest signs were pulled down across the city. Books deemed to be in contravention of the law have also been removed from stores and libraries.

Hong Kong has some of the best universities in Asia. But in a growing climate of fear and self censorship, it is now unclear what can legally be said and taught in a classroom — and whether student activism, both on campus and off, may become a thing of the past.

Protesters react after police fired tear gas at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) campus on November 12, 2019.

Academic freedom

As university lecturers in the social sciences across Hong Kong prepared for the fall term, writing lesson plans, sending out book lists, and testing Zoom setups, they also engaged in a furtive attempt to understand if their teaching might be deemed illegal.

Since it was proposed by Beijing, observers have warned that the vague language and sweeping nature of the security law gives the authorities broad scope to crack down on a variety of behaviors, while offering little guidance to those affected on how to stay the right side of it.

Schools have already been ordered by the government to remove books that contain content “which is outdated or involves the four crimes under the law,” and works by several prominent pro-democracy activists, including former student activist Joshua Wong, have been removed from public libraries.

One lecturer at CUHK described how faculty members pressed university administrators in emails, encrypted messages and in hastily convened staff meetings for reassurances or guidance, with little success.

“The general consensus is we know too little and the wording of the legislation is too vague for us to prepare for it,” said the lecturer, who spoke anonymously as they had not received permission from the school to do so. “So, it is essentially up to individuals to decide whether they want to be brave and ignore the whole thing, or self-censor.”

This creates a nerve-wracking situation for staff, who are unsure not only what might get them in trouble, but also whether the university will stand by them in future. In June, Hong Kong University (HKU) fired Benny Tai, a respected law professor who was instrumental in organizing what became the 2014 Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests.

Tai’s sacking was a “clear breach of procedure, since a committee overwhelmingly made up of political appointees reversed a recommendation made by an academic body (the University Senate) not to terminate Tai’s appointment,” said Sebastian Veg, a China specialist at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, who was previously based in Hong Kong for several years.

“There is a new red line for academics who are also active in local politics or social movements,” he added. “But it’s too early to say whether that red line will further expand into teaching and research itself.”

The Beijing-appointed chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, oversees all public universities in the city, and most institutions have strong links with China, relying on the mainland for students and funding. CUHK, for example, operates the Shenzhen Research Institute, across the border in China, and Chinese students make up the largest non-local cohort in the school’s 20,000-strong student body.

CUHK did not respond to a request for comment about the law or any action taken because of it. The government has denied that the law threatens academic freedom.

In 2017, mainland Chinese students clashed with some local students over a series of pro-Hong Kong independence posters erected on the CUHK campus, which were eventually removed by the school. Following the incident, the heads of 10 universities in Hong Kong published a joint statement condemning “abuses” of free speech and calling Hong Kong independence “unconstitutional.”
Law professor and activist Benny Tai seen in August 2019. Tai was controversially fired from Hong Kong University this year.

Independent thought

Long before it was officially criminalized by the new security law, independence advocacy has been a contentious issue on campuses.

In 2015, then Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung used his annual…

Read More: As Hong Kong’s academic year begins under security law, it’s unclear what can

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