Protests spur global interest in Hong Kong studies

Academics are taking advantage of their freedom to launch new research, but question how long this will last

January 15, 2020
Source: Getty
From protest to print: the first paper on the unrest was published in November

Recent pro-democracy protests have drawn international attention to the small but emerging field of Hong Kong studies, as the city’s academics take advantage of their unique position of being located within China, but without the political constraints faced by their counterparts on the mainland.

In recent months, scholars have used this special status to investigate everything from election practices to online disinformation. But some worry how long this freedom will last, and whether they will in time face growing censorship and restrictions on academic freedom.

One of the most visible manifestations of the field’s growth has been the launch of Hong Kong Studies, a journal published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, which released its first print issue in 2019, with a second on its way in early 2020.

Tammy Ho, associate professor of English at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that she and the periodical’s other founders wanted a new platform.

“Twenty years after the handover, my co-editors and I felt an urgency to start a journal focusing on Hong Kong, since such a publication was not available,” she said. “Hong Kong is an extremely interesting, complex, multifaceted city in its own right; it deserves to be discussed, reflected upon, and debated more often.”

HKBU, for its part, is seizing on the growing interest by hiring for a newly created assistant professorship focusing on “Hong Kong and the world”.

Meanwhile, researchers from HKBU’s Comparative Governance and Policy Research Centre have been invited to conferences and seminars around the world after they launched the Election Observation Project, the first voting-related project of its scale and ambition in the city, ahead of district elections last November.

“Election monitoring is indeed a new subject, timely indeed, in the study of government and politics of Hong Kong,” said Kenneth Chan, the head of the centre. The centre invited overseas advisers to Hong Kong during the district polls, which delivered a landslide victory for pro-democracy campaigners, and is developing plans to cover further ballots this autumn.

An initial report was being prepared and at least two other scholarly publications were in the pipeline, Dr Chan said.

The first formal academic work to come out of the protests was “Hong Kong’s Summer of Uprising: From Anti-Extradition to Anti-Authoritarian Protests”, in the November issue of The China Review, also published by CUHK Press. Professors from four universities conducted public polling during 19 protests from June to August, finding that most demonstrators felt protests should continue if the government made no concessions.  

Edmund Cheng, an associate professor in the department of public policy at City University of Hong Kong and a co-author of the report, said that “academics from Egypt to Chile have asked about how we covered the protests and our methodology. This can inspire other works about social movements.”

“By providing basic knowledge and demographic information, we can facilitate others to do more research on Hong Kong,” Dr Cheng said. His team hopes to produce more work for international journals in the next year or two.

Professor Cheng is also secretary of the Society of Hong Kong Studies, which was founded in 2017 under the umbrella of the Association of Asian Studies.

“It used to be that the ‘Hong Kong’ section would just be the last chapter in a book about China,” he joked. “Now it seems to be a growing field.”

In some cases, the protests brought unexpected twists to existing research.

King-wa Fu, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, is the developer of two programmes, WeiboScope and WechatScope, which track censored Chinese social media posts.  

In July, he found a blip: “Hong Kong independence”, a controversial term that would normally be censored, was unblocked on Weibo. This observation led to new research on whether China was using social media to falsely cast the pro-democracy protests as an “independence” movement, he said.     

“The posts about ‘Hong Kong independence’ generated a lot of anger and patriotic sentiment, but people in China don’t have a complete picture of the news,” Dr Fu said. “Actually, independence or separatism are not among the five main demands of the protest movement.”

He also ran data analysis on 640,000 Twitter user accounts, initially finding that about one in five Twitter users posting on the Hong Kong protests was a bot. “This isn’t just about Hong Kong studies. It’s about politics, media, communications and social movements,” Dr Fu added.

Academics reported relative freedom in conducting research in Hong Kong, but questioned whether this would last.

“Up to this point I have not encountered barriers, obstacles or difficulties at the university or in Hong Kong more broadly,” Dr Fu said. “Nobody has asked me to stop my work. I can speak and write freely. But do I worry about the future? I’d say yes.”  

“Speaking for myself, I have not personally experienced any major censorship issues,” Dr Ho said of her academic research at HKBU. “Looking ahead, however, I am not entirely optimistic about freedom of speech and academic expression in the city.”

Professor Cheng of CityU said that critical work was “possible, so long as we’re using evidence-based research”.

“Hong Kong is connected to the world,” he said. “Our research has impact and is published in peer-reviewed journals that target international readers. So far, this is a protection.”  

 joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Protests spur global interest in study of Hong Kong

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