Academic freedom is facing ‘growing threats’ – Report

There has been a “growing top-down backlash” in the wake of Hong Kong’s 2014-15 student-led Umbrella Movement protests, with the authorities trying to limit academic freedom and bring academia under their control, according to a new report from Hong Kong Watch.

The rights group says academic freedom in Hong Kong “is alive, and generally well” but only due to constant public vigilance against growing threats.

“Although academic work in Hong Kong remains considerably freer than in the rest of the People’s Republic of China, these trends suggest that elements of academic control in place elsewhere in China are gradually being incorporated into the Hong Kong system, threatening the city’s academic freedom and thus its universities’ reputations,” says the report written by Kevin Carrico, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University, Australia.

The newly released report, Academic Freedom in Hong Kong since 2015: Between two systems, says since 2015 some pro-democracy academic figures have been removed from their posts, seen promotions blocked or faced extra-legal campaigns to pressure their removal. “These were all driven by political motivations,” it says.

In addition, “state-appointed and politically connected figures have governed universities in a manner divorced from the will of students and faculty”, it says, noting a “growing push to place limits on freedom of speech”.

Hong Kong Watch was officially launched in the United Kingdom by a British human rights activist Benedict Rogers, who was last year controversially denied entry into Hong Kong, sparking a row in the British parliament.

The new group, with support from a number of UK parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, says it will observe changes in the city’s freedoms under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty which in 1997 handed the then British colony of Hong Kong to China while preserving its freedoms for 50 years after the handover.

A ‘series of escalating measures’

From 2015, in the wake of the Umbrella Movement, which started as ‘Occupy Central’, calling for universal suffrage in choosing the chief executive of Hong Kong, “a series of escalating measures” have been taken by politicians, university councils and “pro-establishment” academics, the report says.

These include removing, blocking the promotion of, or calling for the removal of “controversial” academics; recruiting or promoting academics with pro-establishment views; and placing arbitrary limits on freedom of speech by declaring certain types of speech “illegal”.

The report points to several cases, such as that of Chin Wan-kan, a former assistant professor of Chinese at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, who was one of the founders of Hong Kong’s so-called ‘localism’ movement, which advocates genuine autonomy from mainland China.

In March 2015, just months after the streets were cleared of protesters, Lingnan University President Leonard Cheng wrote to Chin saying his activism “crossed the line of freedom of speech” and “severely hurt the reputation of Lingnan” – arguments commonly used to legitimise decisions in recent years, the report notes.

Chin was subsequently removed from his university post.

In a well-known and much-documented case, in April 2016, the promotion of Johannes Chan, professor of law at the University of Hong Kong or HKU, was blocked, ostensibly because of his role in the Umbrella Movement.

The Hong Kong Watch report also noted that “in some cases, the pressure applied on academics even takes the form of an orchestrated social movement”.

In August 2017, Hong Kong lawmaker Junius Ho publicly called for Occupy co-founder Benny Tai to be removed from his teaching position at HKU and organised an online petition calling for Tai’s removal, gathering more than 80,000 signatures. Ho also organised a rally in September 2017, attended by “hundreds”.

In January 2018, it was revealed that lecturer and lawmaker Cheng Chung-tai’s contract with Hong Kong Polytechnic University would not be renewed following his conviction and fine for “desecrating the flag” in October 2016, when he turned miniature flags of the People’s Republic of China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the Legislative Council upside down.

“In each of these cases, these retributive acts were presented as attempts to protect the affected universities’ reputations. The real damage to the reputations of these universities, however, lies in the growing threats to freedom of thought and speech demonstrated in these cases,” the report says.

“Undoubtedly countless more incidents have occurred behind closed doors and constitute the majority of infringements of academic freedom,” it adds.

University governance concerns

It notes other governance issues which have politicised the universities, including the make-up of university councils, some of which “have become politicised and seemingly accountable primarily to the [Hong Kong] chief executive”.

“Considering that the chief executive of Hong Kong is primarily accountable to the government of China, with an unclear commitment to legally guaranteed academic freedom, the chief executive’s role as chancellor to the city’s universities should be abolished,” the report says.

It also highlights that at Hong Kong’s oldest university, the University of Hong Kong, six out of 23 university council members are directly chosen and appointed by the unelected Hong Kong chief executive. A “minority of only nine members have current links to the university as students, faculty or employees”.

“By placing arbitrary and clearly political limits on the exercise of speech rights, Hong Kong’s government and universities are undermining Hong Kong’s longstanding rule of law and opening the door for ever greater restrictions on speech,” the report says.

UK government role

Hong Kong Watch calls on the UK government and others in the international community to actively monitor the situation in Hong Kong, and state clear consequences for continued infringements of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

The UK Foreign Office produces a report every two years on Hong Kong’s status as part of the Sino-British treaty, but which has often been judged to be weak on rights issues.

During a UK parliament debate on democracy in Hong Kong held on 23 January, MPs noted that China had respected the ‘one country, two systems’ principle “for most of the past 20 years”. However the past 4 to 5 years and particularly the past 12 months “are a cause for increasing concern”, said Fiona Bruce, a Conservative Party MP.

David Alton, an independent crossbench member of the UK upper house, the House of Lords, and a patron of Hong Kong Watch, said Britain had specific moral and legal responsibilities to Hong Kong if its freedoms and autonomy are threatened.

A spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Education Bureau said the Hong Kong government “attaches great importance to upholding academic freedom and institutional autonomy”.

“Academic freedom is an important social value treasured by Hong Kong and protected by [Hong Kong’s] Basic Law. It is also a cornerstone of our higher education.”