Hong Kong visa denial for professor ‘could signal tightening restrictions’

International community ‘should take in academics unable to continue teaching in Hong Kong’, say scholars

February 19, 2022
Hong Kong woman
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Academics have said that Hong Kong’s recent denial of a visa for a US-based human rights researcher may foreshadow greater limitations for scholars working in the city – and called for the global higher education community to push back.

Earlier this month, Hong Kong authorities reportedly rejected a visa for Ryan Thoreson, a full-time researcher for the New York-based non-profit group Human Rights Watch who remotely teaches law part-time at Hong Kong University.

“The sector should see this visa denial as a warning that academic freedom in Hong Kong is increasingly vulnerable,” said Clare Robinson, advocacy director at the non-profit group Scholars at Risk.

She noted a few similar cases in recent years. In January 2020, Hong Kong authorities reportedly refused to permit Matthew Connors, a professor of photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, to enter the city. In 2019, they reportedly prevented American political scientist and author Dan Garrett from entering, in “apparent retaliation” for his statements on democracy and human rights in the region.

Scholars speaking to Times Higher Education said that the visa denial was most likely linked to Thoreson’s position at the non-profit group.

“We can expect more individuals, both in and out of academia, to have difficulty entering the city for a variety of reasons as long as the government deems them a threat,” said Jeffrey Ngo, an activist from Hong Kong who is currently pursuing a PhD in history at Georgetown University.

He said that Dr Thoreson’s specialty in LGBTQ+ issues, which are “generally considered taboo” in Hong Kong and China, may also have been a red flag.

“There’s a popular nationalistic argument – which is prevalent in other authoritarian societies like Russia and Iran, too – that things like LGBTQ+ rights are part of Western-imported ideas that destabilise traditional ways of life,” he said. “Even a place as cosmopolitan as Hong Kong is now moving closer to China with each passing day.”

Still, Mr Ngo stressed that “while there’s usually a lot of attention on foreign academics in the international media for obvious reasons, local academics suffer far more…for young, aspiring academics who once hoped they could build a career back home, that reality is totally shattered”.

Teng Biao, a scholar of human rights and visiting professor at the University of Chicago, urged universities abroad to educate themselves and support Hong Kong-based scholars: “The first thing is to know the situation in Hong Kong and China; the second is to stand up to the intimidation and influence from the Chinese government – that will be important to protect academic freedom.”

Ms Robinson, of Scholars at Risk, echoed the sentiment: “The global higher education community must press Hong Kong and mainland authorities to take immediate actions to respect freedom of movement, support the cross-border exchange of ideas and knowledge and to refrain from basing immigration decisions on the substance of a scholar’s academic work or expression.”

Alvin Cheung, a legal scholar at McGill University, agreed that “the space for international academic exchange with Hong Kong is clearly closing”. He said that “at a minimum”, the higher education community should extend a hand to Hong Kong-based scholars.

Actions could include raising the profile of academics, in particular junior academics, in Hong Kong “to increase the reputational costs of their arrest or ill-treatment by the authorities”, he suggested, while institutions abroad could also take in academics unable to continue teaching in Hong Kong. Dr Cheung also supported re-evaluating – or even potentially ending – student exchange programmes with Hong Kong, given safety concerns.

But where foreign scholars are concerned, Dr Cheung said that, ultimately, those who are denied a visa to enter the city might be better off for it.

“In the [current] era of rampant and unaccountable ‘state security’ institutions, it’s certainly arguable that the only thing worse for someone teaching ‘contentious’ subjects than being refused a visa to enter Hong Kong would be being granted one.”


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