Lawyer barred from lecture on Hong Kong rule of law

University actions to prevent sensitive topics from being aired on campus are causing jitters among Hong Kong academics as the city’s top university this week barred a British lawyer from giving a lecture on growing threats to judicial independence and the rule of law in Hong Kong.

According to the University of Hong Kong (HKU) law faculty website the lecture, titled “Judges, Democracy and Criminal Law”, to be delivered by Timothy Owen, was scheduled for the evening of 17 November. But participants were suddenly informed by email on 14 November that the lecture had been cancelled due to “unforeseen circumstances”.

University sources maintain that the law department’s events are being scrutinised and in some cases university lectures are being vetted for sensitive content, with particular focus on anyone linked to the 2019 pro-democracy movement and others critical of the Hong Kong national security law imposed by Beijing in July 2020. This vetting now appears to have been extended to visiting speakers, academics note.

Heightened sensitivity to outsiders

“There is a new sensitivity at universities regarding lectures or talks by foreign academics and experts, who are less likely than Hong Kong-based academics to self-censor,” an academic at a university in Hong Kong said on condition of anonymity.

“[The issuing of] invitations to overseas experts to talk about topics such as academic freedom, freedom of expression and judicial freedom allows some pro-Beijing groups in Hong Kong to maintain that Hong Kong’s universities are ‘colluding with foreigners’ to undermine Hong Kong’s security,” the academic said.

Hong Kong Chinese language newspaper Ming Pao reported that the university’s faculty of law had come under pressure over its hosting of the Owen Lecture but had apparently resisted.

Dean of HKU’s faculty of law Hualing Fu, who was to host the lecture, reportedly had to leave Hong Kong “due to urgent matters” and, according to the newspaper, could not find anyone else to host the lecture.

Jimmy Lai case

The independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary has been a major topic since 2020.

Owen, a UK-based barrister, was last year barred from representing Hong Kong newspaper tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is currently in prison in Hong Kong pending trial. Lai was arrested in December 2020 for his activities during Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests and charged under Hong Kong’s National Security Law with “conspiring with foreign forces”.

Lai is a British citizen and founder of Next Media, which published the popular pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily that was shut down by the authorities last year. The newspaper, which often criticised the Beijing government, had come under constant attack by pro-Beijing elements in Hong Kong before its closure. Other liberal-leaning Hong Kong Chinese-language newspapers have also had to close.

The Lai case, expected to be heard in December, has emerged not only as an important case involving a prominent pro-democracy activist, but as a key case of freedom of the press in Hong Kong (Lai has been charged with “conspiracy to publish seditious material”) as well as an important test case for judicial independence and rule of law in the city.

Owen shot to prominence last year when Lai applied for Owen to represent him in his National Security Law case, a move that was opposed by Hong Kong’s Justice Department, although the use of foreign lawyers has been permitted for years in Hong Kong courts.

Last October, a High Court in Hong Kong allowed Owen to defend Lai – a verdict upheld by the Court of Appeal and the Court of Final Appeal.

This precipitated the Hong Kong government’s first request to Beijing’s legislative body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, to issue its interpretation of the Hong Kong National Security Law to determine whether lawyers who do not generally practise in Hong Kong should be allowed to argue cases of national interest.

The Hong Kong administration sought a ban on overseas lawyers taking part in national security cases because, it said, the situation raises the risk that lawyers could be “coerced” by foreign governments. It also argued that lawyers on such cases must be familiar with China’s national security concerns.

In January the Beijing legislative body concluded that Owen's representation of Lai was likely to undermine national security and that it would advise the Hong Kong Immigration Department to reject any potential application for a work visa submitted by the British barrister.

Other incidents

This week’s cancellation of Owen’s talk at HKU comes in the wake of several incidents that have raised concerns about academic freedom and freedom of speech at universities.

Last month, Rowena He, a Canadian historian who researched the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, was sacked by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) from her post as an associate professor at the university after the city’s immigration authorities declined to extend her visa.

Also last month, Hong Kong student Yuen Ching-ting was sentenced to two months in prison for social media posts allegedly advocating independence for Hong Kong. Yuen had been studying in Japan at the time she made the posts but was arrested when she returned to Hong Kong in June and charged under colonial-era sedition laws.

Although she received a relatively light sentence compared to some Hong Kong student activists, her case caused waves in Hong Kong as the first involving activities that have occurred outside of Hong Kong, with rights groups alleging the Hong Kong authorities maintains a ‘blacklist’ of students and activists outside the country as well as within Hong Kong who could face charges.