Academic freedom in Hong Kong 'under threat'

New report highlights growing crackdown on dissident academics and increased political interference in campus affairs

January 22, 2018
Junk sailing in Hong Kong harbour

Academic freedom in Hong Kong is under threat from a growing backlash from China against recent pro-democracy demonstrations, a new study claims.

While the report by Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based human rights advocacy group founded last year, states that academic freedom is “alive and well” in Hong Kong, it highlights three emerging trends that have sought to limit free speech on campus.

These are the removal of controversial academic figures from their posts or efforts to block the promotion of dissident lecturers; the rise of state-appointed and politically connected figures who are governing universities in a manner divorced from the will of students and faculty; and a growing push to limit freedom of speech without any legal basis.

The report, titled Academic Freedom in Hong Kong since 2015: Between Two Systems, was written by Kevin Carrico, a lecturer at Macquarie University, in Australia, who is an expert on China and Hong Kong. It was launched on 22 January ahead of a debate on democracy in Hong Kong in the UK’s House of Commons, which will be led by Fiona Bruce MP, the chair of the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission.

The report is also due to be cited by Lord Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, in the House of Lords, whose own report on human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong caused controversy after Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam denounced it as “foreign meddling”.

Commenting on the growing clampdown on free speech on campus, Dr Carrico said that the global reputation of Hong Kong’s universities will suffer if these trends continue.

“These trends suggest that elements of academic control in place elsewhere in China are gradually being incorporated into the Hong Kong system, threatening the city’s academic freedom and thus its universities’ reputations,” said Dr Carrico.

The report calls for local academic freedom monitoring groups to raise awareness of infringements of academic freedom and that educators should openly confront “taboo” topics in Hong Kong.

It also urges Hong Kong to scrap the tradition where the city’s chief executive – currently Carrie Lam – is appointed as the chancellor to all of Hong Kong’s universities. The arrangement stems from the time when Hong Kong was a British colonial outpost and its governor held a largely ceremonial role at the city’s universities, the report says.

However, the appointment is now more problematic as it politicises the position, given the chief executive’s influence, says the report.

“Chief executives are chosen by and thus primarily accountable to the Chinese government, far from a neutral party on matters of academic freedom,” noted Dr Carrico.

“The two most recent chief executives have made comments that demonstrate insufficient dedication and even hostility to the academic freedom and freedom of speech central to academic inquiry in Hong Kong,” he added.

Benedict Rogers, founder of Hong Kong Watch and its chairman of trustees, said he was “delighted to release this comprehensive account of violations of academic freedom since 2015,” adding that “academic freedom is a right enshrined in Basic Law [the constitutional law of Hong Kong which took effect in 1997 when China regained sovereignty over the city]”.

“Hong Kong has some of the finest universities in the world [and] their reputation depends on their independence,” said Mr Rogers, who said he was “concerned that this independence appears under threat”.

“While academic freedom still exists in Hong Kong, we are concerned by the direction of travel and will watch to ensure that the rights enshrined in Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration are upheld,” said Mr Rogers, who was recently barred from entering Hong Kong.

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