Hong Kong campuses ‘could be the target’ for China’s security law

A draft national security law raises concerns about academic freedom and a return to student protests

June 3, 2020
Police stand guard on a road to deter pro-democracy protesters from blocking roads in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on May 27, 2020, as the citys legislature debates over a law that bans insulting China's national anthem.
Source: Getty
Hot in the city: recent moves in Beijing have angered some Hongkongers, but Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has said they won’t dilute any freedoms

Demonstrations have erupted in Hong Kong again after a period of relative calm, just as schools are reopening and universities are preparing for in-person summer courses after four months of Covid-19 closures.

In late May, the Hong Kong police arrested nearly 400 protesters, about half of whom were students, prompting fears of both political repression and a potential resumption of demonstrations. Universities in the region are still reeling from damage caused by clashes between students and the police last November. Between civil unrest and the coronavirus crisis, there have only been a few weeks of in-person teaching at Hong Kong universities in the past six months.

The latest turmoil was sparked by a draft national security law, which was proposed and promptly approved by 99.8 per cent of delegates in China’s National People’s Congress (NPC). The law, whose passage in essence bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature, is meant to control activities related to “secession, subversion, terrorism and conspiring with foreign influences”.

Critics fear it could spell the end of the “one country, two systems” agreement that has been in place since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and which allows the city greater academic and other freedoms than mainland China.

Other recent government actions – such as the deletion of a controversial question on Hong Kong’s college entrance exam and the proposal of a law protecting the Chinese national anthem – have added fuel to the fire.

Michael Davis, a professor of law and international affairs at O. P. Jindal Global University in India who previously taught law in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, told Times Higher Education that universities might be a focal point for the national security law (NSL).

“It must be understood that academics and students are the backbone of the protest movement in Hong Kong. Clearly, if Beijing officials or Hong Kong police are going to investigate any alleged subversive activity, then campuses would be the target,” he said. “Once we acknowledge that, then we can surmise that ordinary academic work will be touched by these efforts, including both research and teaching.

“The problem is that nearly any prohibition in the national security area is capable of broad interpretation and expansive use to prohibit opposition. Even a lot of academic writing may be judged to touch on sensitive issues,” Professor Davis added.

For now, nobody knows the details of what the NSL will entail, nor how it will be enforced. Despite its swift approval in Beijing, it still needs to be advanced through the NPC Standing Committee, probably in a few months’ time.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, told THE that “in brief, the introduction of the NSL will not do anything positive for academic freedom, though it may not immediately curtail it upon its promulgation”.

“The crux of the matter is that if and when academic freedom translates into words and/or acts deemed ‘subversive to state power’ or the monopoly of power by the Chinese Communist Party, it will almost certainly fall within the NSL and thus be curtailed,” he added.

Professor Tsang felt that certain fields of study would feel more pressure. “Most everyday academic discourse will not touch on such a matter,” he said. “Hence, some subjects such as politics and history are more vulnerable than others, like physics and chemistry.”

Kenneth Chan, director of the Comparative Governance and Public Policy Research Centre at Hong Kong Baptist University, told THE that “law, humanities, social sciences and anything having to do with China will be particularly hard hit”.

“Projects involving international partners will be vulnerable to additional layers of political vetting, and some of the otherwise legitimate projects may suddenly be seen as ‘suspicious’ because of international connections,” he said. “The scope for public intellectuals to share knowledge outside academia” may also be affected.

In terms of the law itself, he continued, “the NSL has strong rhetoric, but legally speaking, it is deliberately vague. Therefore, we cannot be optimistic about the university’s autonomy and academic freedom.”

Professor Chan highlighted the close ties between the government and the city’s main universities, all of which are state-supported institutions.

“Institutionally, publicly funded universities are already under pressure to express unconditional support for national security measures that are known to be notorious for academic freedom in mainland China, where censorship and self-censorship are widely practised,” he said. “As [Hong Kong’s] chief executive is the chancellor of all the universities, the management will be expected to ‘monitor’ their staff and students.”

On 1 June, the councils of Hong Kong’s eight main public universities issued a letter supporting the national security law, while five university presidents published a similar statement.

Hong Kong officials have been vocal in condemning the recent protests while reassuring the public that the draft law is not as threatening as its critics claim.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive and ex officio head of all the universities, published a full-page ad in the city’s newspapers on 29 May reassuring the public that the new law “will only target an extremely small minority of illegal and criminal acts and activities”, adding that “citizens will continue to enjoy the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of demonstration, of procession”.

Arthur Li, a member of the Executive Council of Hong Kong and chairman of the University of Hong Kong council, appeared on BBC World to criticise the demonstrators on 27 May, the fiercest day of recent protests.

“Anyone on the street you disagree with can be beaten up or set on fire,” Professor Li said, referring to two 2019 assaults. “This is no different than before the war during the Nazi era, when you had Brownshirts beating people up. Something needs to be done about it.”

The Hong Kong Education Bureau confirmed in a 27 May statement that “some young people wearing school uniform have been arrested…We urge students to treasure the opportunity of being able to return to school and stress that they should never take part in any activities that are illegal or pose threats to their personal safety.”

Kevin Yeung, the education secretary, had warned of dangers the day before, when protests were already widely expected. In a 26 May letter to teachers and principals, he told educators that they had a “commitment” to tell students not to take part in “dangerous and unlawful activities, remain vigilant to misinformation on the internet…[not to] join class boycotts, chant slogans, line up [in] human-chains, post propaganda materials or sing songs that are politically charged”.

“It is most heart-breaking and worrying to see young persons take part in these activities, and some people injured and arrested,” he wrote.

So, what’s next? In the short term, demonstrations are expected to continue at least through 4 June, when Hong Kong’s annual vigil for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown is normally held, although the event has now been cancelled. So far, the recent protests have been in downtown areas and not on campuses.

However, the big test for universities will come when they reopen for in-person summer courses later in June and for the autumn semester in August.

There are hopes that there will not be a repeat of the clashes from last year, which started relatively peacefully in the early summer but escalated to violent confrontations in November that caused weeks of campus shutdowns and prompted many foreign students to flee.

Lawrence Ho, an expert in policing and public order management at the Education University of Hong Kong, told THE that newly tightened security and limited student numbers may deter physical confrontations.

“There are strict security mechanisms in every publicly funded university,” he said. “So, basically, vigorous protesting activities in campuses are not likely. Private security teams hired by universities indeed effectively rule out the possibility for campus protests.”

If unrest and closures continue, and academic freedoms are curtailed, even local Hong Kong students may be reconsidering their options. Taiwan, which has already seen an increase in university applications from Hong Kong, is beckoning, with new arrangements for some migrants from the city. An announcement that Britain may grant a potential pathway to citizenship to some Hong Kong residents could cause emigration to the UK to rise.

Professor Tsang of SOAS said that, while Hong Kong’s attractiveness will be affected, “it will not be the end of Hong Kong as such a destination”.

Meanwhile, Professor Davis said “there is certainly a danger that both potential faculty hires and inbound students may be concerned about academic freedom and avoid Hong Kong. I hope not, as Hong Kong is a great city, but I do worry about this.”

Whether Hong Kong universities will be able to preserve their reputations depends on how “reputation” itself is defined. Globally, academic freedom is seen as a positive attribute. But in China, an institution’s reputation is more likely to be tied to its compliance with the government, as well as its ability to avoid protests or other threats to “social stability”.

“In practice, censorship and self-censorship will be widespread as university presidents, deans and heads rationalise the damage done to academic freedom and institutional autonomy as cautionary measures to remove ‘reputational risks’,” Professor Chan said, meaning “risk” in the Chinese context of being linked to criticism or controversy.

“If a university is said to have tolerated teachers and students whose views and activities are considered a national security issue by the rich and powerful, the university will almost certainly draw criticisms,” he added.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Hong Kong braces for another summer of discontent

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Reader's comments (2)

Why the obsession with HK? I’m also concerned with national security ACTION in the US.
A few mainland Chinese universities have been able to achieve comparatively high rankings in those perpetually suspect global rankings that so obsess higher ed administrators. Insofar as these rankings are accurate, it's mainly because of the quality of education and research in the supposedly apolitical science and engineering areas. While there are excellent individual scholars and artists in the humanities and social sciences, at an institutional level these subject areas are permanently hamstrung by the manic, pervasive, paranoid censorship policies of the CCP, and as a result Chinese universities are misshapen things that through their very remit defecate on the idea of academic freedom. This is what I fear awaits higher education in Hong Kong, where in recent years, before the passage of this craven, fearful national security legislation, teachers and researchers already have faced increasing pressure to avoid dealing with "sensitive" issues and events. Over the past three decades, and especially since the ascension of Xi, many top academics in China have voted with their feet and departed the homeland for more open intellectual communities--very much including Hong Kong. That's over as of now, and the brain drain from HK universities of both expat and local scholars will accelerate rapidly in the coming years. And if and when the Party introduces some kind of loyalty oath into employment contracts, recruiting top-line faculty will become very difficult, leaving universities staffed increasingly with compliant, complicit mediocrities. All the efforts Hong Kong universities have made over the decades to build up international academic credentials (some genuinely useful, some misguided) will atrophy and crumble. All because authoritarians are cowards.

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