National security education compulsory for undergraduates

All of Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities have now brought in new national security law courses this academic year as a requirement for graduation, as required under Beijing-imposed laws.

While some universities had already outlined their courses last year, or brought in pilot courses that were not a graduation requirement, they have become compulsory this academic year for all eight public universities.

The national security law imposed on Hong Kong on 1 July 2020 outlaws acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and also requires all higher education institutions to roll out national security education. Beijing argued that the law would bring stability to the city after many months of unrest in 2019-20.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) announced in an email to students on 25 July that all students would be required to complete the non-credit online course “Introduction to the (Chinese) Constitution, Basic Law and National Security Law” from the academic year which begins in September, although students can take the course in any semester before they graduate. It will be compulsory for graduation for students graduating in the coming year and thereafter.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) will add two new compulsory credit-bearing courses on “national constitutional order and Hong Kong” and “understanding China” to the undergraduate curriculum from September. “Understanding China” covers Chinese history “from a cultural perspective” as well as social, economic and technological developments in China, the university has said.

CUHK this week also added non-credit seminars on national security as part of its undergraduate orientation activities. This backfired after a walk-out by reportedly more than half of the first-year students attending the seminar this week. The walk-out prompted a comment from Hong Kong Secretary for Education Christine Choi that students should respect university rules and codes of conduct.

Students told local media they felt the seminars were intended to “warn” students.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has also added a course called “Legal Education” from the coming academic year, as part of its requirement to bring in national security education. It said more details of course content would be provided in September.

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) – the scene of a major siege during unrest that rocked Hong Kong in 2019 – has said it would also deliver the national security law course to postgraduate students from the new academic year after bringing it into the curriculum for undergraduate students last year.

While universities have autonomy in devising their own courses, the national security law stipulates that they must cover Hong Kong’s Basic Law or mini-constitution and the national security law. But some universities have heeded the message from pro-Beijing politicians that young people in Hong Kong need a better understanding of mainland Chinese culture and history, and economy.

The new HKU course also covers the development of the Greater Bay Area, an economic zone that combines Hong Kong, Macau and several cities in southern Guangdong province, with the emphasis on integrating Hong Kong’s economy into Southern China. Other universities have added courses on Chinese history and culture.

PolyU said its Chinese history and culture course would be delivered by the university’s department of Chinese culture in its faculty of humanities.

From the 2023-24 academic year, students at the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK), which trains teachers for Hong Kong’s schools, will, alongside national security education, also be required to take a course on the Greater Bay Area. The university will also organise trips for all its undergraduate students to visit the Greater Bay Area.

The Hong Kong Education Bureau also said this week that it would distribute copies of a speech made by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the city in July to local schools and kindergartens, with teachers told to “study and learn” its key messages. This is the first time a Chinese leader’s speech has been distributed to teachers in Hong Kong for study.

The Education Bureau said educators were expected to “accurately comprehend the constitutional order under ‘one country, two systems’, deepen their awareness of the trends in both the country and the world, and understand the importance of Hong Kong’s integration into the overall development of our country [China]”, it said.

Students at CUHK said they were concerned about what would happen if they failed the compulsory security law modules. “As this has not been done in Hong Kong before, we do not know what kind of standard is required,” a CUHK student about to enter her final year of an undergraduate degree said.

“Perhaps they just want us to regurgitate set answers, as they do on the mainland,” she said. “It is difficult to know what to expect.”

She said the national security law was quite vague and that the “atmosphere for freedom of speech” on campus had declined. She also doubted that students were expected to exercise their own judgment with such courses.

Another CUHK student noted that it had become more difficult to get “tips” on how to deal with such courses and other student matters since student unions had been dismantled across most public universities in the past two years, adding that students were already worried about surveillance of their social media posts.

This week social media community pages for students of CUHK, HKU, HKUST, Hong Kong Baptist University and City University of Hong Kong could no longer be accessed after Hong Kong’s national security police on 9 August arrested two Hong Kong civil servants for allegedly publishing what police described as “seditious” posts online on the ‘Civil Servants Secrets’ Facebook page, without revealing what kind of posts led to the arrests.

Students told University World News that the non-official Facebook pages known as ‘HKU Secrets’, ‘CUHK Secrets’, etc, which have existed well before the national security law, were used to share insider information and gossip, including about their professors, and attract a lot of student comments to the pages.

“They were not taken too seriously by students, though they have been popular and attract comments from students,” said a CUHK student who gave her surname only as ‘Chan’. She added: “More students looked at the secrets page after the [CUHK] union was silenced.”

“After taking down students’ democracy walls on several campuses and closing unions, the authorities seem intent on removing any forum used by students for discussion,” Chan said, referring to the democracy walls that cropped up on campuses and in streets for people to post ‘post-it’ messages and which have been removed by authorities.

“There is definitely a sense of the tightening of controls on students,” she said and pointed to former student leaders being put on trial.

Arrests and trials continue

The compulsory national security courses come as arrests and trials of students and others who allegedly took part in the 2019 protests and other activities continue. They include the ongoing case being heard in the courts against four HKU student leaders, currently out on bail, who are full-time students at HKU, although earlier they had been barred from campus and the HKU student union disbanded.

The four were arrested in August last year and charged under the national security law of “advocating terrorism” – which can carry a prison term of up to 10 years – over a motion passed by the student council in July last year expressing grief at the death of a man who stabbed a police officer and who subsequently committed suicide.

It is the first case under the national security law directly related to university affairs, compared to charges against students, mainly accused of rioting, during events prior to the imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong.

Jacky So, a former CUHK student union president, was arrested in December 2021 for allegedly inciting others to cast blank votes during legislative council elections last year after allegedly sharing a social media post by former pro-democracy legislator Ted Hui which called on people to cast invalid votes between October and December last year.

Another CUHK student leader, Owen Au, was arrested in June over a similar charge under Hong Kong’s sedition laws. Au and two other students had already served prison terms of 6-8 months for participating in an unlawful assembly and violating a mask ban during a protest in October 2019.

The colonial-era sedition law, which existed before the national security law, has been used more frequently in recent months. The English-language South China Morning Post newspaper reported last month that one in five arrests by national security authorities in the past two years was on the grounds of sedition rather than the national security law.