Unsafe harbour? Academic freedom in Hong Kong

In a special report from the territory, David Matthews hears concerns that scholars are paying the price for ‘politically incorrect’ talk

September 10, 2015
Pro-democracy protester, Causeway Bay district, Hong Kong, 2014
Source: Getty

The attacks on Joseph Cheng Yu-shek began in July last year. First came a barrage of front-page stories in two Hong Kong newspapers widely seen as mouthpieces of Beijing, which accused the prominent pro-democracy academic of plagiarism and lying on a passport application.

Then, in the build-up to last year’s Occupy Central protests, Cheng started to receive almost daily anonymous phone calls and letters, calling him a “traitor”, a “running dog” and a lackey of “hostile foreign forces”. His wife believed that she was being followed on the street.

A group of about 10 “patriotic” activists even came to his home and held up banners demanding that the university investigate the accusations of plagiarism.

The City University of Hong Kong, where Cheng was a chair professor of political science, initiated a wide-ranging inquiry into his work, and eventually demoted him to regular professor earlier this year, a few months before his retirement in June.

Cheng says that the university found him not guilty of plagiarism but concluded his work was “not up to the highest standards”. This is not the first time Cheng has faced allegations of plagiarism: he was investigated previously in the mid-1990s, when he was demoted from his position as a dean despite a finding that the claims could not be proven. Commenting on the more recent investigation, he insists he did nothing wrong, while the university has declined to provide details about the findings of the case. But he believes that the attacks against him, and the unusual prominence given to the case by some media, were politically motivated: he is the convener of the Alliance for True Democracy, a coalition of groups campaigning for universal suffrage in the territory.

Speaking to Times Higher Education over coffee in a Hong Kong cafe, he asks: “If I was just an academic [accused of] plagiarism, why should it be the page one headline for three to four days?”

Some Hong Kongese scholars say that Cheng’s story reflects a wider loss of academic freedom that is creeping through the territory, the one part of China where universities and academics have traditionally enjoyed the autonomy that is lacking on the mainland.

Fears that Hong Kong’s special, ambiguous status was under attack from the Chinese administration helped draw more than 100,000 protesters to the streets last year, with key parts of the city’s business district occupied for months. The immediate flashpoint was an announcement by Beijing in August 2014 that a nominating committee, which critics expected to be packed with loyalists, would screen candidates for the election for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017.

The protesters’ tent cities were cleared by December, without the Tiananmen-style massacre that some feared at the height of the occupation. But the city is still as politicised as ever and anxiety about mainland encroachment runs high.

Academic freedom and university autonomy is guaranteed by law in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, a number of scholars who are not “politically correct” – that is, they are too critical of Beijing – believe that they are being targeted by media smear campaigns from pro-communist newspapers, passed over for jobs, or blocked from taking senior management positions by university councils loyal to Beijing.

In January, the same newspapers that accused Cheng, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, denounced Johannes Chan Man-mun, the former dean of the law faculty at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and another pro-democracy activist, accusing him of leading the department to a poor performance in an upcoming assessment of research quality.

Responding in a different newspaper, Chan defended the department’s research record and asked whether the “upper echelon of government” had cooperated with the media to attack him. He questioned how the pro-Beijing press had managed to obtain the confidential research assessment results before their public release.

Wen Wei Po has also attacked Robert Chung Ting-Yiu, a public opinion pollster based at HKU whose findings have often made awkward reading for Leung Chun-ying, the pro-Beijing chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Newspaper articles questioned Chung’s methodology and asked whether HKU’s Public Opinion Programme, which he heads, was being funded by US intelligence agencies. Chung strenuously denied the claims, stating that his survey methods are fair and transparent and urging his critics to stop “Cultural Revolution-style” attacks.

Dixon Ming Sing, an associate professor in the Division of Social Science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has also been in the sights of pro-Beijing hacks. Four years ago, he publicly criticised Beijing’s repression of the banned religious movement Falun Gong. Pro-Beijing newspapers responded with more than 20 articles, he recounts, including calls for him to be dismissed.

Is such criticism, fiery as it is, simply part and parcel of entering the public fray of politics in Hong Kong? If academics “take sides”, their views are “bound to be politically controversial”, says Sonny Lo Shiu-hing, head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, and a frequent media commentator on the territory’s politics. Lo argues that this makes it inevitable that politically engaged academics “will become the target...of camps opposing them”.

But the attacks are so “ferocious” and frequent that they go far beyond anything normal in public debate, counters Sing. Like Chung, he argues that we are witnessing methods “similar to the tactics used during the Cultural Revolution” and adds that the attacks have “risen in intensity” of late.

The climate of academic life in Hong Kong has changed, agrees HKU’s Chan. “Only in the past couple of years have we seen direct attacks on academics. It’s no longer on your views, it’s your person,” he tells THE.

Cheng believes that the newspaper campaign against him was so “concentrated” and “prominent” that it was probably coordinated by the United Front Work Department, a Communist Party agency tasked with gaining influence over non-party groups that is reportedly active in Hong Kong and Taiwan. THE was unable to contact the department for a response, and the Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao newspapers did not respond to enquiries.

Occupy Central, pro-democracy protestors, Hong Kong, 2014

The subsequent investigation by City University into Cheng’s work was an attempt “to teach me a lesson and to set an example for others” for being politically active, Cheng says. “I believe that somebody in the university wanted to please the Chinese authorities,” he says. “But I could not prove it.” City University did not respond directly to this allegation but said that two independent committees had investigated the plagiarism claims.

So concerned have some scholars become by the broadsides against academics that in February they wrote a public letter urging pro-Beijing media to rein in their “vicious” attacks and to “exercise caution in guarding their reputation as self-respecting public media”. So far more than 1,000 students and staff from Hong Kong’s universities have signed it.

Other academics believe that the Hong Kong government, and therefore Beijing, is encroaching on academic autonomy by infiltrating university governance. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung – the man who last year became a hate figure to protesters who believed his true loyalties lay with Beijing rather than Hong Kong – is automatically chancellor of all universities in the city. Leung has varying levels of power over council appointments. At the University of Hong Kong, for example, he has the power to appoint both the chairman and another six members of its council, the body of up to 24 people that appoints the vice-chancellor.

Meanwhile at City University, the chief executive appoints 15 of the 23 council members, seven directly and eight on the recommendation of the council. He can also appoint the chairman, deputy and treasurer. In 2012, Leung named businessman and political supporter Herman Hu Shao-ming as chairman. While it is common for independent tycoons to sit on university councils, Cheng argues that their mainland business interests make them very unlikely to push back against Beijing. “Almost without exception, tycoons are very politically correct,” he says.

This struggle over the control of university councils has played out very publicly at HKU. At the beginning of August, the university council decided to continue to defer the appointment of Chan to the position of pro vice-chancellor, a decision that elicited significant controversy in the press. The decision was reportedly taken against the wishes of the vice-chancellor, Peter Mathieson.

The council’s explanation is that it has deferred Chan’s appointment to wait for the approval of the university’s new provost, who is yet to be appointed. “The University of Hong Kong respects and upholds academic freedom. We have steadfastly protected and preserved it and will continue to do so,” said the council’s chairman, Leong Che-hung, in a statement. Mathieson told THE that as a member of the council he accepted collective decision-making, but hoped “that the controversial issues can be resolved by the council without further delays”.

Leung’s power over universities does not end with councils: he also appoints members of Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee, which advises the government on the funding and strategy of universities.

Press attacks and council control, say concerned scholars, have been the weapons of choice against the most prominent academic figures in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. But some believe that the highly politicised environment in Hong Kong is also beginning to affect the climate for day-to-day teaching and research.

THE met with Liz Jackson, assistant professor in the Division of Policy, Administration and Social Sciences Education at the University of Hong Kong, who has felt this subtle pressure. She is currently working on a special journal issue about the pro-democracy “umbrella protests” of Occupy Central. The work has attracted the attention of some colleagues, she says, who have assumed “the point of the piece is to support the Umbrella Movement”.

In their eyes, “even to say the movement exists is to somehow give it legitimacy when it shouldn’t [have]”, she explains. One professor in a scientific discipline suggested to Jackson that he should write an article for the issue, otherwise “it’s going to be a load of postmodern nonsense”.

“Pressure can come in very subtle and soft ways,” agrees Ho Chi-Kwan, visiting professor in social work at the Caritas Institute of Higher Education. While setting up a new academic centre, Ho was approached and told “to be careful” about including the Umbrella Movement in the centre’s description in case the “higher ups” in the university saw the centre’s research focus as “politically sensitive”.

And Michael Davis, a professor of law at HKU, believes that “if you want to organise a conference on a sensitive topic then there’s a sense among your colleagues that you should be careful…or ‘higher ups’ are not keen to fund it”.

Davis, who previously worked at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, believes that seemingly routine appointments can be affected too. He believes that the rejection of his application to extend his job beyond the age of 60 was due to his public criticism of Beijing’s policy towards the territory. “You’re told by people who are in the process [of deciding whether to extend the position], ‘Those people up above me do not like seeing you on the evening news’.”

A spokeswoman for the Chinese University of Hong Kong says that the institution does not comment on individual cases but adds that there does not appear to be any evidence to support Davis’ claim. Applications for extending an appointment beyond the age of retirement are considered at department, faculty and university level by the relevant committees, she says.

Davis freely acknowledges that in an atmosphere of suspicion, career disappointments for liberal-leaning academics can always be blamed on political discrimination, whether there is evidence of this or not. “Generally you can’t find a smoking gun”, but the atmosphere in Hong Kong’s higher education sector “reeks of intimidation”, he says.

As for Cheng, despite his own difficult experiences, he believes that Hong Kong is still “very safe” for academics engaged in pure research. He adds, however, that “most colleagues feel a lot of pressure now in taking part in political activities seen as ‘politically incorrect’ ” and that this pressure is acute for young scholars hoping to gain tenure.

The extent to which all of these worries are real or mistaken is almost beside the point, argues Bruce Macfarlane, who until last year was a professor of higher education at HKU. “Once fear sets in,” he says, academics will self-censor regardless of how real the threat to their careers.

Pro-democracy demonstrator, Admiralty district, Hong Kong, 2014

Macfarlane, who is now professor of higher education at the University of Southampton, points to another potential lever for Beijing. Beijing is currently funding exchanges between Hong Kong and the mainland, and even if the initiatives are well intentioned, opportunities could be denied to those deemed to be politically incorrect. Since 2012, 1,000 academics and students from HKU have crossed the border on exchange programmes and research scholarships each year.

Cultural change could also be brought about by a large influx of postgraduate students from the mainland, Macfarlane notes. “They will become the academics of the future”, which will contribute to what he calls “mainlandisation” – one of the deeper fears thought to be behind the protests last year. At HKU in 2013-14, 57 per cent of research postgraduates were from the mainland.

Although the number of Chinese mainland students applying to Hong Kong universities has dropped recently, with commentators blaming political instability for the decline, the influx of that cohort in recent years has left some scholars reluctant to broach controversial issues.

In the classroom, Jackson admits, “I don’t want to say anything too bad about China because that will create a hostile environment”. Her teaching assistant, who is from the mainland, has asked not to teach any modules about China because mainland students expect her to stay loyal and uncritical. If she does not toe the line, “she gets the feeling that they really resent her”. But it cuts both ways: Jackson also finds it difficult to criticise Hong Kong to local students. In the lecture theatre, both Hong Kong and mainland colleagues are expected to stay loyal to their respective homelands, she says. Most of the other academics interviewed by THE, however, say they feel far less restricted in the classroom.

As for the long-term impact, there is concern that rising tensions on campus and a perceived clampdown on political activities may make it difficult for universities to recruit the best staff. Sing, for example, says that two friends currently teaching in California told him that they “would take extra care to receive a permanent appointment in Hong Kong” owing to fears of political pressure. In particular, the fiasco over the appointment of Johannes Chan Man-mun at HKU may deter the ambitious from coming, he believes.

Just as decision-making at HKU has stalled, the wider political situation has reached a stalemate. In June, pro-democracy lawmakers vetoed Beijing’s electoral plan that would have screened candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive, denouncing it as “fake” democracy. This means that, as things stand, in 2017 the chief executive will be elected by the same 1,200-strong body of members of the business and political elites that in 2012 chose Leung.

More broadly, education and universities will play a key role in influencing whether Hong Kong continues to cause political trouble for Beijing in the long term. The Occupy Central movement was led by student groups and founded by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor of law at HKU. The protests revealed just how many young people felt they were Hong Kongese, not Chinese.

If Beijing “can’t control university students now, they won’t control them in three, five, 10 years”, says Stephen Chan, associate vice-president (academic affairs) and registrar at Lingnan University. “So they need to control the universities. It’s quite clearly the strategy.” The question for Hong Kong’s academy, he says, is “what is our strategy?”

Heat’s on: Why is China ramping up pressure on the ‘politically incorrect’?

What is behind the apparent escalation in pressure on Hong Kong’s “politically incorrect” academics? On the face of it, Beijing is responding to the Occupy Central protests last year, which were the biggest display of public defiance towards the Chinese Communist Party since 1989.

Yet the newspaper attacks on City University’s Joseph Cheng Yu‑shek and the Hong Kong University pollster Robert Chung Ting-Yiu preceded the start of the sit-in. An alternative explanation is that the moves are part of a wide-ranging attempt to stamp out dissent initiated by president Xi Jinping, who came to power in mainland China at the end of 2012.

According to some commentators, criticism of the party that was tolerated in the Hong Kong academy under previous leaders is now no longer seen as acceptable. Under Xi, civil society groups, women’s rights activists and, most recently, lawyers have suffered increased harassment and detention.

An open letter to university teachers across China, published in a party newsletter in November 2014, accused them of being too “scornful of China” and fired the starting gun on what appears to have been a campaign against dissent in the academy.

In December, Xi urged greater “ideological control” and more teaching of Marxism in universities. The following month, China’s education minister Yuan Guiren vowed to ban university textbooks that promote “Western values” – which prompted one senior academic critic to question how exactly to reconcile this with the Marxist ideology on which China’s constitution is still based.

Students and academics have always been one of the most common sources of dissent in China. Despite the neutering of universities following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, they remain a worry for the ruling party.

A rare insight into how higher education may be democratising China was offered in a paper published in April this year. “China’s ideological spectrum”, by Jennifer Pan of Harvard University and Yiqing Xu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that Chinese people with higher education were more likely to be in favour of constitutional democracy and individual liberty.

Also part of the wider picture is Taiwan, which Beijing hopes will eventually reunify with the mainland. If universities in Hong Kong are seen to lose autonomy under pressure from Beijing, this could drive greater opposition to reunification in Taiwan. A more liberal policy in Hong Kong will make Taiwanese reunification more likely, argues Cheng.

“China has invested so much to win the hearts of Taiwan people, and what [Beijing is] doing in Hong Kong certainly has been very damaging to the Taiwan policy,” Cheng says.

David Matthews

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Reader's comments (1)

This approach is not unique to Hong Kong, but also happens far too frequently in Australian Universities. Many excellent academics have been removed in similar circumstances, mostly as a result of expressing views which contradict the prevailing left wing views of senior academics and administrators. This issue of plagiarism also rears its ugly head with most Australian Universities having a strict written code of conduct, but if a academic follows that code, then their career is often terminated, as this rule is one that should not be followed. If it was then the pass rates of students would decline, the University's world ranking would decline, and fewer students would choose that University as their preferred place to study.