Hong Kong universities forge ahead on tough topics

Academics feel responsibility to speak publicly on issues such as press freedom and ‘fake news’ 

July 11, 2021
Fake news illustrating symposium in Hong Kong
Source: iStock

The very public role academics continue to play in Hong Kong’s tense political landscape was on show at a symposium about “fake news”, co-organised this week by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU).

The professor scheduled to deliver the closing remarks – Francis Lee, director of CUHK’s journalism and communication school – could not make the event because he was in court, testifying for the defence at the first trial related to the National Security Law. That sweeping legislation, passed almost exactly a year ago, has led to concerns about academic and other freedoms. 

Professor Lee was replaced by Joseph Chan, an emeritus professor at CUHK, who addressed the potential for new government regulations on “fake news”.

“‘Fake news’ can be equated with ‘unfavourable news’,” Professor Chan said. “It could be a ‘good excuse’ to crack down on opposition or activism. When Hong Kong’s press freedom is at risk, we don’t want another law to drag it down further.”

Michael Chan, an associate professor at CUHK, used the opportunity to present research about “disinformation” he had conducted with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

When asked if Hong Kong professors would continue to speak publicly at events about contentious topics, he told Times Higher Education that “it is our responsibility as academics”. 

“Universities fundamentally are about seeking knowledge and educating the next generation,” he said. “We have to make a contribution to society – and it’s not a matter of whether we are ‘pro’ – or ‘anti’ – a particular issue.”

Other academics at the symposium said they would not alter their teaching, even on issues such as fake news.”

Masato Kajimoto, who leads a news literacy initiative at HKU, said he would “proceed as before” in the classroom.

However, “if we are publishing student work or sending that work to outside media, I would be more careful than before”, he said, citing concerns about protecting both his students and anonymous sources.  

Cherian George, associate dean for research at HKBU’s communication school, said that simply organising the symposium, which was open to the public online, was “an indication of how much this issue matters to us”.

Last month, he had also spoken at an HKBU panel about Hong Kong media freedom, which has been posted publicly online.

Such events would be nearly impossible in mainland China. Even some Western universities, like SOAS University of London, have stopped recording lectures that might be deemed sensitive to the Chinese authorities.

“We’re all in this together – public servants who care about society, responsible media and responsible academics,” Professor George said at HKU. “We live and die – professionally, at least – by the ability to inform, educate and move based on evidence. This is how we progress as a society.”

He emphasised the need for academics to be able to speak out on a range of topics.

Disinformation was “devastating for governments, media and universities. It’s devastating for the survival of the human species. For example, in the extreme case of climate change denial, it will literally kill us.”

He added that “it’s a bad idea to give the powerful the right to decide what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ knowledge”.

Debate continues about how Hong Kong campuses should deal with controversial or even offensive materials, whether from academics or students.

The same day as the symposium, HKU’s student union approved a motion to comment on a man who stabbed a police officer and then killed himself. Public acts of mourning over the suicide have been suppressed in the city. Two days later, the union’s executive council withdrew the motion and resigned.

Both HKU and CUHK have already cut off support for their student unions over statements related to recent politics.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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