New administration fuels concerns for university freedoms

Hong Kong has a new Beijing-approved administration under new chief executive John Lee who was Hong Kong’s secretary for security until 2021, a period during which the city saw mass pro-democracy protests and a subsequent crackdown on pro-democracy activists, civil society groups and the closure of independent-minded newspapers.

Lee, who is a former deputy police commissioner, will also become the chancellor of Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities which include leading institutions such as the University of Hong Kong (HKU). As chancellor he will have direct influence over university leaders and university management.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the new administration’s swearing-in ceremony as Lee takes over as leader of Hong Kong on 1 July, as part of Xi’s visit to Hong Kong for the 25th anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to Chinese rule, China’s official Xinhua news agency announced on 25 June. The 1st of July is also the second anniversary of the National Security Law (NSL).

The NSL introduced severe penalties, with the possibility of life in prison for subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, and set up special national security police to investigate such cases and special national security law judges to hear them.

The authorities maintain the NSL has restored stability and peace to Hong Kong after the turmoil of 2019 when hundreds of thousands protested in the streets.

While academics say they see “more of the same” after two years of arrests, trials and dismantling of freedoms under the NSL, including the derecognition of student unions, and the removal of monuments commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre from university campuses, as well as the curbing of other student activities, others say Lee’s background as a police officer could mean an even harsher regime.

“Universities will continue to be under the microscope of the new Hong Kong government,” Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.

“Any kind of student organisation, any student association would be under intense scrutiny, such that I think the students will live in a very oppressive environment, very different from how they have felt for a very long time in local universities,” she told University World News.

“We expect that Lee will employ a heavy hand because all he has learned to do is to see the city through a security lens,” said Wang. “He is also chosen for his loyalty to Beijing, so Beijing’s direct rule over the city would be even more apparent than the past administration under Carrie Lam,” she said referring to the outgoing Hong Kong chief executive who had been a career civil servant in Hong Kong.

“John Lee was in charge of police tactics during the 2019 protests and it was very heavy-handed, draconian repression, so being appointed as [Hong Kong] chief executive is really saying Beijing is going to continue that authoritarian approach to Hong Kong – not just [restricting] academic freedom but comprehensive repression,” said Brian Leung, executive director of the United States-based Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), founded by pro-democracy activists in exile.

An HKDC report published in May this year put the number of political arrests at 10,501 since 2019. The number of political prisoners in Hong Kong stood at 1,014 compared to “only a handful” at the start of the mass protests in June 2019.

“In few places in the world has the state of human rights deteriorated so rapidly as in Hong Kong over the past three years, with the rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression and political participation all indefinitely suspended, unreasonably restricted or abolished,” the report said.

‘Safeguarding national security’

This week Lee and his incoming team highlighted their priorities for Hong Kong during a press conference in the city, with an emphasis on safeguarding national security on all fronts, ranging from financial to educational.

In an interview with Hong Kong’s English-language South China Morning Post newspaper this week, Lee indicated a more proactive approach to countering criticism of Hong Kong.

“We have to face one challenge, which is, there has been a lot of fear-mongering and bad-mouthing political manoeuvres … about so-called erosion of freedoms and rights, which somehow paint a picture which doesn’t reflect the actual situation in Hong Kong,” he said.

“We need to build a consensus that freedom is not a blank cheque to contravene the law. Freedom means that everybody operates within the confines of the law so you can enjoy the maximum freedom,” Lee said.

Several academics said privately they see this as a warning given that the security law is not clearly defined.

Peter Baehr, formerly at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and now at the University of South Florida in the United States, in an article titled “Hong Kong Universities in the Shadow of the National Security Law” published in the journal Society earlier this year, said: “Because academics were afraid of the National Security Law, they became afraid of other things not expressly mentioned in the law, which is to say that they became afraid of authority in general.”

Baehr, who declined to comment on the incoming administration when contacted by University World News, wrote in the article: “In one university, a professor introduced a proposal to create a charter of academic freedom only to have a majority of colleagues defeat it.”

HKDC’s Leung pointed to self-censorship being prevalent among academics in Hong Kong and noted that “several political scientists or social scientists actually had to flee Hong Kong after the NSL” came into force.

“Academics fleeing into exile will continue,” he said, noting that many were actively searching for positions overseas amid a deteriorating atmosphere in the city.

“The most pivotal moment will be the 47,” said Leung, referring to the city’s highest-profile national security case involving 47 leading democratic politicians and activists who were among 55 people arrested on one day: 6 January 2021. The case has yet to come to trial, with many of the detainees denied bail since their arrest.

The upcoming trial and the sentences handed down to some of the most prominent Hong Kong politicians “will be an indicator of the direction of the Hong Kong administration and NSL jurisdiction and might also have an impact on the whole sentiment in Hong Kong,” said Leung.

Hong Kong universities’ role in China plans

In interviews, Lee has indicated a strong focus on Hong Kong serving China’s science and technology aims, noting that Hong Kong serves “as an effective bridge between the mainland and the rest of the world, including as an international centre for innovation and technology”.

“Over the next five years, the [Hong Kong] government will focus on the economy and people’s livelihood, trying to solve the problems accumulated over the past years, while remaining vigilant about safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests,” Lee said in a separate interview carried by official Chinese news agency Xinhua this week.

Academics noted that with Hong Kong’s heightened role in China’s ambitious national plans for technology and innovation self-sufficiency, Beijing will keep a close eye on universities through the new Hong Kong administration to ensure they serve these goals.

Brian Kern, a United States-based Hong Kong activist, said the incoming administration would promote “closer and closer cooperation between Hong Kong universities on the one hand, and Chinese universities and Chinese companies on the other”.

“And alongside of that, promoting what you could call non-ideological fields [of study] or fields that are related to the Communist Party’s plan for how China’s going to get ahead – science and technology and so on, and demotion of humanities fields which are considered ideological and therefore dangerous.”

In November the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) said it would merge its government and public administration programmes with its programme related to global studies and data science, claiming that fewer students were interested in its political science courses. These had been popular before the 2019 mass protests. The merger will be from the 2023-24 academic year.

Carlos Lo Wing-hung, head of CUHK’s department of government and public administration, told the Chinese-language Hong Kong newspaper Sing Tao Daily that the university’s government and public administration courses “emphasised too much on politics”.

HKDC’s Leung said: “You will see the trajectory where it will be more about public policy rather than politics – a depoliticised version. You will see resources moving away from social sciences, you will see social sciences professors in Hong Kong under pressure.”

Research independence

Hong Kong academics have also raised concerns about the appointment of the mainland China-born scientist Sun Dong as the incoming Hong Kong secretary for innovation, technology and industry in the new Lee administration.

Sun is currently head of the department of biomedical engineering at the City University of Hong Kong and an expert in robotics. His new role is seen as crucial to Beijing’s overarching aim to integrate Hong Kong industry and innovation into the so-called Greater Bay Area, which includes the former Portuguese colony of Macau and nine other cities in Southern China including Guangzhou and Shenzhen, with Hong Kong a key part of the “innovation hub”.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and CUHK have campuses on the mainland while China has extended the reach of at least 16 key state laboratories funded by China to establish centres at a number of Hong Kong’s universities as part of the Greater Bay Area integration plan.

While Hong Kong researchers and academics have welcomed the extra funding that the mainland-funded labs bring, they have also raised concerns about a different research culture compared to Hong Kong and the impact of mainland funding on academic freedom.

Pro-Beijing groups have suggested mainland-funded research in Hong Kong would only support scientists who were “patriotic” or loyal to China, which could also have an impact on who gets funding and the way researchers select research topics.

“His [Sun’s] appointment signals really bad news for the future of Hong Kong academia,” said Lokman Tsui, a former lecturer at CUHK researching free expression and internet policy, and now a research fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto, Canada.

Tsui said via Twitter that Sun had been part of a pro-Beijing group in Hong Kong that had criticised Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee which funds university research in the city. “According to Sun, the University Grants Committee is a ‘leftover by the British during Hong Kong’s colonial era’, and he pushed for the removal of foreigners,” Tsui said.

Tsui explained: “One reason why HK academia has done well in the past years is because the process of getting research grants has been truly independent, with experts globally reviewing the proposals. The University Grants Committee is responsible for this.

“But this independence is unacceptable to Beijing. In other words, here it is not just attacking particular ideas or values such as ‘democracy’,” Tsui said. “Instead, it is the independent funding of academic research that the authorities find unacceptable.”

Tsui noted that Chinese state media such as the Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao had criticised the University Grants Committee earlier this year. Tsui wrote at the time: “Particularly problematic is the pro-Beijing media defaming the entire University Grants Committee as a ‘cash machine for anti-China scholars who have disrupted Hong Kong’.”

The newspaper in its 7 February edition had also accused the University Grants Committee of using public funds to “subsidise Hong Kong independence elements”.

According to the Ta Kung Pao article, “many people in the education sector believe that the University Grants Committee should review the existing guidelines for fund applications and include whether it violates the national security law and other legal provisions into the evaluation criteria”, which many Hong Kong academics said did not bode well for research funding criteria in Hong Kong.

‘National’ education

Tsui also pointed to incoming secretary of education in the Lee administration, Christine Choi Yuk Lin, who was previously Hong Kong undersecretary for education.

“It’s bad news for the future of HK education that Choi Yuk Lin is appointed secretary for education,” Tsui tweeted, noting that she had pushed for a reform of “national” education in Hong Kong in the past which included proposed teaching materials “massively biased towards Beijing and the Communist Party”. Tsui added: “Textbooks that were proposed as part of this reform also said multi-party systems are no good because they bring chaos.”

“We can expect her to drive an agenda of ‘national education’ that will teach Hong Kong’s youth what it means to ‘develop moral qualities’, to foster ‘national identity’, etc,” he said.

Much of this is already being implemented in schools, with new Beijing-approved textbooks being rolled out from kindergarten upwards and national security education now mandated for all Hong Kong universities and schools, though some universities, notably HKUST and HKU, are still to introduce their national security curriculum.

Kern said the new administration “will continue the current trend, which is to ensure that universities are fully under ideological control, and that there will be no independent student activism of any kind. This is part of the overall plan for education – it starts in primary and goes all the way through secondary and includes universities.”

CUHK cited national security concerns when it cut ties with its student body in February 2021. The CUHK student union decided to disband in October 2021.

Student unions continue to disband, with Hong Kong authorities regarding them as “radicalising” elements.

HKU’s student union was disbanded not long after an editorial in the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily said the student organisation “discredited” national security education proposed for Hong Kong’s universities and described the union as a “malignant tumour that needs to be removed”.

“From then on, it was open season on student organisations. None of any political significance survives in its pre-NSL form,” according to Baehr.

He added: “Often it was not enough merely to destroy a union; its officers had to be hunted down for seditious words.”

For example, after City University of Hong Kong’s union was evicted from campus premises, police announced an investigation into the union’s members, who had painted slogans such as “freedom of thought” and “academic autonomy” during the farewell ceremony, Baehr said.

While many students have been tried in the courts under rioting charges related to the events of 2019 under laws in existence at the time, a number of ongoing cases involve charges under the NSL, which many say relate to pro-democracy slogans or those advocating Hong Kong independence, which some argue are “speech crimes”.