At the end of 2021, two universities in Hong Kong sparked outcry from students and university professors with the removal of pro-democracy statues.
It was the icing on the cake in a year when several city institutions cut ties with their student unions amid concerns about the compatibility of political activism with a new national security law. Outside academia, the signs are worrying: two independent media have folded in recent weeks, with employees of the website Stand news arrested on suspicion of publishing seditious material.
As 2022 dawns, are there still ways for scholars and university students in Hong Kong to freely express their opinions, and what tactics should they adopt to evade political pressure?
For many scholars, especially those in disciplines such as history, law and politics, staying in their posts means keeping their heads down and avoiding taking political positions on contentious issues or speaking out against the Chinese Communist Party.
“It’s not that Hong Kong scholars are told what to say or what not to say. It is rather that the National Security Law of June 2020, with its ambiguous wording, makes academics in Hong Kong suspicious,” said Peter Baehr, until August 2021 professor of social theory at Lingnan University and now a research fellow at the Center for Studies at the University of Florida. social and political thought.
Critics say the law is open to broad interpretation, threatening free speech. It covers the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
“Oblique Ways of Discussing Controversial Issues”
Still, fear of “sedition,” which “hangs over universities,” hasn’t stopped many scholars from forging ahead, Baehr said. “Academics will find oblique ways to discuss controversial issues. But this requires effort and risk, a minority taste.
According to numerous testimonies from Hong Kong-based academics, this is precisely the approach they take.
“Students seem reluctant to engage in potentially politically sensitive topics, but that doesn’t stop me and some of my colleagues from doing so,” said Carsten Holz, professor of economics at the University of Hong Kong science and technology and one of the most vocal commentators on the state of academic freedom in Hong Kong institutions.
But even he is cautious. He noted that with the shift to online teaching during COVID-19, it has become much easier to catch scholars who express controversial views. Although her university offers a registration service for instructors to post courses online, Holz chooses not to use it.
“I do not create or authorize any recordings of my lectures, and neither do many of my colleagues,” he said, while acknowledging that it was impossible to prevent students from recording. classes without his permission.
Holz said that since the passage of the National Security Act, academics are being more cautious about how they express themselves online. “Most, if not all, of my colleagues who were active on Twitter or Facebook deleted their accounts around July 1, 2020, or at least deleted some old posts,” he said.
Many academics have said Times Higher Education that while they may not have felt explicitly pressured by their universities to refrain from speaking out on controversial issues, the things outspoken academics say have a way of catching up with them. It is understood that in several cases university leaders have received calls from people in positions of power to keep their faculty online.
“It’s a known fact that phone calls come in,” said one academic, adding that it could affect a professor’s salary or request for a sabbatical.
Academics expressed hope that their administrators would stand up for them when the time came, but many were pessimistic. According to Holz, “the best that university administrators who wish to defend academic freedom can do is to deflect outside attacks on the academy to the highest degree possible.”
Another Hong Kong-based scholar, who wished to remain anonymous, said scholars could talk indirectly about the issues: “The best alternative I can think of is to take inspiration from mainland dissidents on how to discuss risky issues or expressing criticism in a roundabout way.”
For example, instructors could discuss authoritarian regimes and repression in the classroom focusing on examples like Belarus or North Korea. If academics were directly critical of China, they would do well to focus on particular policies – ideally past ones – rather than expressing general condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party, the academic said.
Faculty can also choose to “provide students with moral support” through low-key conversations and choose not to enforce “oppressive rules.” For example, teachers are required to report students to the university administration if they find students showing a “banned” film, such as Revolution of our time— a 2021 documentary about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests — the researcher said.
Another Hong Kong-based researcher who also preferred to speak confidentially said researchers were freer to address controversial topics in their papers than in class.
“There currently isn’t much review of what we write unless we’re asking for funding or promotion,” they said, adding that “not caring about ‘career progression’ would help. to a sense of autonomy.
The academic said another way to avoid unwanted attention could be to refrain from putting sensitive keywords in publication titles, a trick that works since “academic reviewers often don’t have the time to filter things beyond a title or a short summary”.
Yet, due to their fields of study, some scholars may inadvertently run into trouble. While it is difficult to find exact figures on the number of people who have already left, many academics Times Higher Education talked to known colleagues who had left or were about to leave.
“Research and publication on potentially sensitive topics in Hong Kong or China today is no longer possible in Hong Kong, and I don’t see what Hong Kong-based professors can do to avoid the problem except leave, which many do,” says Holz.
He was pessimistic about the future of free speech for those who choose to stay in the city.
“I don’t think it’s more possible for academics to be politically active in Hong Kong,” he said. “I also don’t see any possibility of student protests in the future.”
But the students found ways to stay politically engaged.
Lah, a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who asked for his nickname, said that for those active in campus politics, the way forward is through more spontaneous and decentralized actions rather than organizing demonstrations within the framework of a central student union.
He said that was how students reacted after the statue of the goddess of democracy was removed from his university campus.
“We are sort of formless – the risk is relatively low as we don’t run the events [or] using our own names… we are privately calling on friends to participate,” he said.
Some don’t see the evidence of self-censorship
But not everyone agrees that Hong Kong’s political environment has hampered student rights or affected institutional autonomy.
Ka Ho Mok, vice-president of Lingnan University in Hong Kong and a professor of comparative politics, said he had “not seen any significant changes as a researcher and university administrator, except that we have to be sensitive to the subtitled law,” adding that “in general, academics and university administrators still enjoy institutional autonomy.
While Mok acknowledged that “a few” of his colleagues had left town, he was confident Hong Kong’s universities would continue to attract top academic talent. He said professors who stick to the facts — an approach that has served him well — shouldn’t run into trouble.
“As a social scientist, particularly in research on the development and politics of contemporary Chinese society, I have managed to publish my work based on empirical evidence [and] conceptualize my research findings,” he said.
Mok took a pragmatic view of national security law.
“I don’t think as university administrators we need to censor students if they’re not breaking the law,” he said. “University students are adults and they have to observe the legal implications and consequences. As university professors, our duty is to encourage students to learn to be socially responsible and to act correctly.
Gerry Postiglione, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at the University of Hong Kong, expressed dismay at the negative portrayal of Hong Kong universities in the media. He said he did not know of any academic who had been censured by their university for their teaching or research.
Postiglione stressed that universities are legally autonomous, although “subject to the constraints of dependence on finances”, and that staff members can “teach and research as they see fit best”.
He also noted that the West is not immune to its own academic freedom issues, noting recent instances of censorship at more than one US institution. “There is self-censorship in universities all over the world, even in my country,” he said.
Even academics who said the national security law had significantly affected academic freedom noted that they were freer from “identity politics” than their colleagues in Western institutions.
“What is really needed is a public affirmation of the university as a space for free discussion. Then again, that very assertion is absent now in Western universities as well,” Baehr said.
“In fact, I would say that a heterodox academic in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia has a harder time than an academic in Hong Kong today… The Chinese Communist Party ranks at the second-highest threat to enlightened Western teachers and administrators.”