Dismay over university’s sacking of scholar denied a visa

Academics in Hong Kong are dismayed at the dismissal of Hong Kong academic Rowena He from her post at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) just two days after the Hong Kong authorities denied her a visa allowing her to return to her teaching post at the university.

He, an associate professor of history at the university, said her employment had been terminated by CUHK with immediate effect on 27 October, with the university citing the city’s immigration department’s rejection of her visa renewal as a reason.

Rowena He had received outstanding teaching awards at the university in 2020 and 2021 and had written a book called Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the struggle for democracy in China, published in 2014. The book, along with others on topics regarded by Beijing as ‘sensitive’, was removed from Hong Kong’s public libraries in May although academics at other universities say it is still listed in their library catalogues.

CUHK listed her research interests as “the 1989 Tiananmen Movement and its aftermath” as well as “academic freedom and censorship or self-censorship”.

The history scholar told Hong Kong’s English-language South China Morning Post newspaper she was shocked by her dismissal and the way it occurred. “I thought at least I would have someone from [the university] administration talk to me, instead of just sending me this termination letter right away,” said the scholar.

She said that it was as if the university was using her to serve as an example. “Does that mean every university would follow suit?”

‘Potential security risks’

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said this week the decision on He was taken after considering “potential security risks to Hong Kong”. When asked whether the incident would have an impact on Hong Kong’s bid to attract overseas talent, including academics, Lee insisted the immigration department would have thoroughly considered the case.

A CUHK spokesperson declined to comment on He’s case, saying visa decisions were “a matter for the immigration department and the university is unable to influence visa outcomes, nor is it aware of the circumstances of individual cases”.

The spokesperson said the employment of non-permanent residents of Hong Kong was conditional on possession of a valid visa.

Hong Kong’s immigration department said it would not comment on individual cases.

Last year, Ryan Thoreson, a legal scholar who specialises in LGBTQ rights, was offered a tenure track position to teach human rights law at the University of Hong Kong as an assistant professor of law but was denied a visa after a wait of nearly five months.

Dismay at university’s actions

A CUHK academic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told University World News the university’s action in Rowena He’s case has “dismayed the academic community” at CUHK.

“You would expect the university to take up the case of Rowena He, or any other scholar that it has employed, with the immigration authorities. Instead they [the university administration] wasted no time in sacking her. It does not inspire confidence that the university will stick up for any of its scholars in matters of academic freedom.

“It is unnerving that there is no job security for academics in Hong Kong and that academic posts are at the whim of immigration officials who are not transparent about their decisions. It shows little respect for academic freedom which has been a strength of Hong Kong’s universities in the past,” said the CUHK academic.

Sophie Richardson, until recently China director at Human Rights Watch, described He as an “extraordinary scholar-teacher” and said, via X, that her visa denial was further evidence of China’s “censorship and revisionism in academia”.

Another academic from a Hong Kong university, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Universities here are supposedly autonomous. But this sacking has shown how closely aligned the university is to the government’s policies.”

The academic added: “It does not surprise me in one way because the current university head (Vice-Chancellor Rocky Tuan) has been under attack himself from pro-Beijing factions in the legislature,” as reported by University World News.

“This is because he [Tuan] took the side of students in November 2019 during widespread unrest in the city and on university campuses, when police stormed the CUHK campus,” explained the academic who suggested the CUHK leadership has been weakened by constant attacks from pro-Beijing factions.

National Security Law

Since Beijing imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong in July in order to quell the 2019 protests, academics have been concerned it will be used to clamp down on freedom of speech and academic freedom. The law criminalises acts of secession, subversion and terrorism, as well as “collusion with foreign forces”, but most of these are only vaguely defined.

He, who has Canadian citizenship, came to Hong Kong in 2019 after teaching at universities in the United States but had taken up a temporary senior research fellowship at the University of Texas for almost a year at the time of her dismissal. She also had a fellowship from the National Humanities Centre, an independent non-profit research institute in the US.

A previous visa request in 2021 was approved by Hong Kong’s immigration department without a hitch but when she applied for a visa in July 2023 she experienced delays, according to her own account to local media.

According to He, in remarks to local media after her sacking, she contacted the Hong Kong immigration department in late July and received a list of questions on funding sources for past projects undertaken at US universities.

She was asked whether she had ties to foreign political organisations or non-profit organisations and was asked for details of the sources of funding for her work at Harvard University and Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study.

He told the Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper she was unsure what the significance of the questions were but said she submitted a package she had prepared, which included public information about the universities she had worked for.

Attacks in state media

Academics in Hong Kong were quick to note that the visa rejection came after China’s official Wen Wei Po newspaper published an opinion piece in February by a pro-Beijing figure in Hong Kong which argued CUHK should eliminate “anti-China and disruptive Hong Kong elements”.

The article also accused He by name of “slandering and attacking the Chinese government”, referring to a politics course she had taught at Harvard University. The article accused her of using history to ‘brainwash’ students into anti-China and anti-Hong Kong thinking.

Carsten Holz, a professor in the social science division at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, wrote in a recent commentary for University World News: “When Ta Kung Pao [state-owned newspaper] and Wen Wei Po zero in on a target, Hong Kong government ministers jump into action. When the target is an academic, the academic knows their time in Hong Kong is limited.”

CUHK still had He listed as ‘on leave’ on its website this week. Her biography on the university’s webpage included a reference to her book Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the struggle for democracy in China, noting that it had been named one of the Top Five China Books of 2014 by the Asia Society’s China File.

She received the Harvard University Certificate of Teaching Excellence for three consecutive years for the seminars she created on the 1989 Tiananmen Movement and its aftermath and, at CUHK, she received the faculty of arts Outstanding Teaching Award in 2010 and 2011.