Academics split on risk to universities after Hong Kong protests

Observers suggest attempts to influence campus affairs – directly or indirectly – might increase after assault on legislature

July 4, 2019
Source: Alamy

Opinion is divided over whether the storming of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building will lead to reduced freedoms for the territory’s universities.

William Tierney, Wilbur-Kieffer professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, said the violent end to protests against a controversial extradition bill posed “severe threats” for universities.

“China will not let Hong Kong exert greater freedom and voice,” said Professor Tierney, who is also an interdisciplinary research fellow at the University of Hong Kong. He said organisations that supported democracy, including universities, could expect greater oversight.

“I am not optimistic that the universities can or will develop a coherent long-term response,” he said.

But University of Hiroshima education researcher Futao Huang said Chinese universities benefited from their relationships with Hong Kong counterparts, and mainland authorities would not risk the international prestige of the territory’s institutions by curtailing their academic freedom.

Consequently, the Chinese government was unlikely to impose “immediate and direct political or ideological constraints” on their governance, teaching, research or students’ movements, he said.

Professor Huang predicted that Beijing would use “indirect measures” to influence the territory’s universities, including accelerating the consolidation of higher education links between Hong Kong and China.

Tensions were high after the three-hour occupation of the legislature left the building in tatters and triggered demands from a Chinese Communist Party-owned newspaper that Hong Kong authorities take a “zero-tolerance” approach to “mob violence”.

The chaos contrasted with the quiet of Hong Kong campuses, which were largely vacant in the period between the main academic semesters.

Compared with 2014, when the Umbrella Movement protests and associated campus boycotts occurred during class time, academics have found it difficult to gauge students’ involvement in the recent demonstrations.

One Hong Kong-based professor said colleagues were concerned about possible recriminations against students, given that many of the protesters were young, but signs of broader consequences for institutional autonomy were unlikely to emerge before the next semester started in September.

A Beijing academic said that with China’s attention focused on trade tensions with the US, a crackdown on Hong Kong was unlikely and interventions targeting universities were even more improbable.

But Professor Tierney said the territory’s universities had already been affected by an increasingly authoritarian Beijing. He said University of Hong Kong academic Benny Tai and other activists had been imprisoned because they “fomented a peaceful protest” in 2014, and former vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson had resigned partly “because he tried to protect students who the Chinese government didn’t want protected”.

“The result is weaker vice-chancellors and more aggressive governing boards who are in support of China,” Professor Tierney said.

The imprisonment of Professor Tai and a fellow academic has been portrayed as a litmus test for academic freedom in the territory. Professor Tierney has drawn parallels between university leaders’ failure to object publicly to the jailing and academic silence during the 1950s persecution of US communist sympathisers.

The University of Hong Kong has been at the centre of allegations of mainland meddling, in episodes such as a controversial 2011 visit by Chinese vice-premier Li Keqiang and the university council’s 2015 rejection of pro-democracy lawyer Johannes Chan’s appointment as pro vice-chancellor.

University administrators argued that the significance of such events has been exaggerated and insisted that they have never received instructions of any sort from Beijing.

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