Academic freedom goes on trial in Hong Kong

What should be the stance of a university when one of its faculty calls for peaceful protest?

In late 2014, two professors, Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man, and Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming called for a series of peaceful demonstrations to protest the lack of democracy in Hong Kong. This act of civil disobedience, which paralysed downtown Hong Kong for 79 days and came to be known as the ‘Umbrella Movement’, was a call for more democracy.

The goal to ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ attracted thousands of supporters, many of them university students.

The Chinese Communist Party never budged, and the protestors eventually went home. Since that time, the mainland Chinese government has asserted greater control over Hong Kong and hopes for greater democratic engagement by the citizenry have faded.

Two weeks ago the trial began for Tai, Chan and seven others charged with conspiring to cause a public nuisance. If found guilty, they each face seven years in prison.

Gallingly, neither Tai nor Chan, associate professors at the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong respectively, have received support from their institutions. These individuals are faculty in good standing at their universities, yet no one is speaking up on their campuses.

This silence is especially troubling because the leaders of these universities have chosen to speak out on other issues. A little over a year ago, the vice-chancellors of the 10 universities in Hong Kong issued a statement condemning slogans on student message boards calling for independence from the mainland.

And yet, these same vice-chancellors have stayed mum about Tai and Chan, saying nothing about the rights of faculty to speak out on crucial issues of the day by calling for non-violent protest. Indeed, the boards of trustees of the professors’ institutions have said nothing. The faculty have said nothing. Professorial associations from across the island have said nothing.


Based on interviews I have conducted over the past month in Hong Kong, it appears that the vindictive and prosecutorial strategy of the government is working. Individuals feel there is no point in speaking out because change will not happen.

“We practice self-censorship,” one young academic told me. Others confessed they feared losing their jobs if they spoke out in support of their colleagues.

The prosecution of non-violent protesters is not simply an effort to try an individual for a crime. The bigger message is that individuals ought not to speak out, because if they do, they will face a lengthy trial and then jail.

Academic freedom is always a controversial issue. Its purpose, however, is to ensure that academics have the ability to search for truth. And while Tai and Chang are in Hong Kong, parallel events have occurred in the United States – and can occur again. In the 1950s during the McCarthy era, several academics faced the same sort of harassment that Tai and Chan now face. Many lost their jobs because colleagues were afraid to speak up in their support.

The McCarthy era is looked on as a shameful time in the United States and a failure of nerve by the professorate to hold the line against infringements on the raison d’être of academic life: academic freedom.

Those who work in universities in Hong Kong – and beyond – face a similar dilemma. If they do not support their colleagues, Tai and Chang will not be the only professors harmed. The universities will be that much less an intellectual ground for searching for truth and advancing society.

William G Tierney is University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education in the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and the co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education, United States.