Passport rush to beat oppression

August 4, 1995

The value of foreign passports among lecturers in Hong Kong has reached an all-time high, with uncertainty reaching fever-pitch among lecturers over China's plans for academic freedom after 1997.

With less than two years to go before the changeover of sovereignty, two-thirds of lecturers at Hong Kong University have completed the paperwork to leave the territory, according to vice chancellor Wang Gungwu.

Should political circumstances make life in the city unbearable under Chinese rule, many lecturers are expected to leave. Professor Lee Chin-Chuan, visiting American professor at the Chinese University's department of journalism and communications, said: "There is a lot of uncertainty over the future of the university and how it will work. The professional - especially the academic - has a lot of concerns."

And while other professionals with similar worries - such as lawyers and doctors - can set up practices and rebuild client leelsewhere, moving to greener pastures has never been harder for lecturers, said Professor Lee.

Cecilia Chan, senior lecturer at the HKU's social services department, is worried that after 1997, Beijing "will tighten up control" because "China is very suspicious of intellectuals".

Paperwork overload would be one effective way of keeping academics quiet. "They could keep us busy with lots of forms to fill in, which will not give us the time to grumble or sit back and be critical of the government," said Dr Chan.

Meanwhile, the wave of lecturers seeking foreign passports continues. One lecturer, who asked not to be named, has accepted a six-month post in Australia purely to enhance his chances of receiving a formal invitation to stay.

"I need the passport because the communists will come to Hong Kong and their track record for academics and intellectuals is not good," he said.

It is not imprisonment or torture that concerns him, for these methods of persuasion are no longer in vogue in China in the way that they were during the Cultural Revolution. What he fears is intellectual degradation of a more subtle kind.

"The Chinese have different ways of handling academic freedom," he said. "I know at least one case in China where an academic wanted to attend an international conference and had to turn in his paper first to the National Security Department for approval."

The anonymous lecturer speaking from Australia is one of the very few from Hong Kong willing to speak out against China. But he is quick to defend his colleagues: "The mentality is: if I cannot get my foreign 'insurance policy' and am reported unfavourably to the new master, I may be in trouble."

Expatriates are believed to be among the most concerned over the impending changes.

Edward Chen, an executive councillor in Hong Kong and director of the Centre of Asian Studies, said: "Expat lecturers may be feeling uncomfortable, especially the British. They may see the end of a colonial age as the end of their career in Hong Kong."

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