Hong Kong’s Universities Brace for a Return to School

Students, last year’s protest locomotive, return to a repressive new law

By: Jay Ganglani

Thousands of university students in Hong Kong are expected to return to campus in early September following a year of political and social unrest, involving a national security law expected to go into effect at the end of this month that exemplifies Beijing’s tightening control over freedom of speech and assembly. Given that much of the protest that has shaken the territory has been centered in the student bodies and faculties of its universities, there are deep concerns over what this tightening political noose means for academic freedom.

There are ample reasons for concern. Last November, as local outrage grew over an attempt by Beijing to force passage of an unpopular law allowing extradition of lawbreakers and presumably protesters to courts in China, students barricaded themselves in several schools, including the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Polytechnic University, where students fought a two-week pitched battle with police for control of the campus, leaving behind 4,000 firebombs and other explosive items. Hundreds were arrested. It is uncertain how many were jailed.

Although many critics see the law as aimed at least partly at the academic communities, on June 1, the governing council of Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities announced their joint support for Beijing’s decision to implement the national security law. A spokesperson from the Education Bureau told Asia Sentinel that the law would only target a small minority of illegal and criminal activities, that the government is fully committed to the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, and that citizens will continue to enjoy their right to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and demonstration. The spokesperson reiterated that the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, guarantees academic freedom and institutional autonomy, both currently and in the future.

A professor at the University of Hong Kong agreed with the Education Bureau. The professor, who requested to remain unnamed over fears for her safety, says that the law will not be used to suppress the freedoms of students and will only target criminal activities.

“I don’t see the law affecting students. It will only stop rioters from their violent actions and bring stability back to Hong Kong,” she said. Another --  John Carroll, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong, is cautiously optimistic.

“I think the Hong Kong government realizes that universities need to be places where people can think freely and critically,” Carroll said. The national security law, he said, isn’t expected to impact what is taught or discussed at a university level for the next couple of years, at the very least. 

Both prior to and after the proposed national security law was announced, Carroll said, nobody within the faculty or university has ever imposed restrictions on him regarding what could or could not be discussed during lectures and expects that this will remain to be the case for the foreseeable future. 

However, there are many in the university community both students and faculty, who regard those attitudes as capitulation to Beijing. Mary Ng, for instance, a member of the student union’s editorial board at Hong Kong Baptist University, says he wasn’t surprised.

“The reason why I’m not surprised is because all of the university presidents have joined a pro-Beijing union as a member, except for the City University of Hong Kong. That’s why I am also not surprised by their support for the national security law,” Ng said.  “The school teaches us to have critical thinking skills and I think we should have the ability to voice our views on the topics that matter to us,” he said, adding that there should be institutional independence when it comes to discussing important topics in relation to Hong Kong’s future, such as the impact of the national security law on Hong Kong and its universities.

Two undergraduate students from the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Baptist University, who declined to reveal their names, told Asia Sentinel that they intend to protest peacefully in September. They explained that “it’s now or never for Hong Kong’s future and we must continue to protect the city’s freedoms by making our voices heard.”

Certainly, assertions of independence haven’t been greeted enthusiastically internationally. One professor at the Hung Hom-based Polytechnic University, which has been at the center of the city’s pro-democracy protests, says for several reasons he doesn’t agree with the education chief’s recent comments that national security law protests have no place in Hong Kong’s schools.

“Each university has its own culture and regulations about such things, so as of now, as you can see if you’re talking about freedom of expression, there is no equivalent of that happening in universities, and nobody has come out to bar certain topics from discussion,” he said.

The debate is taking its toll on the territory’s reputation for academic independence, As of March, according to the Global Public Policy Institute’s Academic Freedom Index, universities in Hong Kong fell to C Status with a score of 0.442 on a scale from 0 to 1, alongside countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan, signifying a decline since 2000 in all five key criteria of the study.

The index, which took into account freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity, and freedom of academic and cultural expression, was judged by a total of 1,810 experts, mainly consisting of academics from that region. 

An associate dean at Hong Kong Polytechnic University who asked to remain anonymous said he is in support of peaceful protests, but that any form of violence does not constitute a group’s freedom of expression. Referring to last November’s events at the university, he said that “freedom of expression does not include preventing or depriving others from a place of study or work.”

According to a survey by the Professional Teachers’ Union with interviews from over 1,100 teachers, headmasters, and senior staff from the city’s primary and secondary schools, more than 90 percent of the respondents stated that they have lost confidence in the future of education in the city, with even more –91 percent – disagreeing with the notion that teachers shouldn’t express their views on their personal social media accounts.

Jay Ganglani is a Hong Kong-based undergraduate student and an Asia Sentinel intern.