Curbs on freedom of speech could damage Hong Kong’s international lure

A ban on political advocacy and remedial action for possession of ‘radical concepts’ could undermine the special administrative region’s universities, says Michael O’Sullivan

January 3, 2019
Hong Kong’s secretary for education, Kevin Yeung Yun-hung
Source: Getty
Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, Hong Kong’s secretary for education

Freedom of speech and political advocacy on Hong Kong university campuses have been in the news again. The new vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, Zhang Xiang, recently said that the institution’s campus should not be “a platform for political advocacy”. A few days later, the special administrative region’s secretary for security, John Lee Ka-chiu, banned the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party on grounds of national security, claiming that it was “spreading ideas to students and linking up with anti-China and pro-independence forces overseas, such as those advocating independence of Tibet, Xinjiang, southern Mongolia and Taiwan”.

Hong Kong’s secretary for education, Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, then wrote to schools and universities advising them that “if students [are found] to have any wrong or radical concepts, principals and teachers should provide guidance, clearly point out the facts, and inform their parents”.

His remarks come just a year after some Hong Kong students put up pro-independence banners on campus. However, while political advocacy for independence is clearly and understandably a no-go area, students in Hong Kong, like students elsewhere, are likely to see their four years of university life as a period when they can and should campaign and volunteer for a range of causes that are important to them. Some, for example, might campaign on issues related to gender politics. But the minister’s failure to spell out what “radical concepts” he objects to will strike fear into the hearts of all students engaged in social campaigning.

And what are we to make of political advocacy on behalf of the Communist Party of China, whose charter has long required all organisations with more than three members to set up a cell: a regulation dubbed the party’s “fortress in the grass roots”. New party regulations have recently been released setting out how cells should be run. Universities are specifically required to emphasise “enhancing ideological and political guidance”.

The campuses of several mainland Chinese universities that I have visited also clearly serve as “platforms for political advocacy”. Students often take compulsory courses and exams on the ideology of the Communist Party of China and even on the thought of Xi Jinping. Is Zhang’s call, then, a dishonest way of saying that campuses should not tolerate advocacy that departs from party policy?

How are academics and students in Hong Kong to understand this contradiction? On the one hand, university presidents call for a ban on political advocacy on campus, and on the other, party heads demand greater political advocacy in all organisations, including universities. As Hong Kong universities are drawn more in line with mainland China, this contradiction will only become more evident.

Zhang’s comments did not come entirely out of the blue. His predecessor, Peter Mathieson, who is now vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, was a co-signatory, with the heads of Hong Kong’s other nine universities, of a statement released following last September’s pro-independence demonstrations condemning “recent abuses” of freedom of expression – which, the statement added, is “not absolute, and like all freedoms, comes with responsibilities”.

University presidents in Hong Kong are desperate to attract more international students. They are rewarded in university rankings for doing so, and internationalisation plays into Hong Kong’s self-image as a global hub.

At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, we teach students from all over the world. These students come to Hong Kong knowing that university life has always been about self-discovery, which often involves volunteering on behalf of social and political causes that they feel strongly about. The Hong Kong government needs to be clear about what kinds of “political advocacy” they must avoid.

Hong Kong’s universities are some of the best in the world, and they have achieved this status precisely because of their respect for academic freedom and freedom of expression. As internationalisation becomes ever more important for universities in the region, it is important that these strong traditions are upheld.

Michael O’Sullivan is associate professor in the department of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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