Hong Kong academics find subtle ways to criticize China

As 2021 comes to a close, two Hong Kong universities have sparked protests from university students and faculty by removing pro-democracy statues.

That was the cherry on top of the pie in a year when several city institutions cut ties with student unions amid concerns about the compatibility of political activism with a new national security law. Outside the academy, the signs are worrying: two independent media outlets have been folded in recent weeks, with site staff stand news Arrested on suspicion of publishing inflammatory materials.

As 2022 kicks off, are there still ways in which academics and students at Hong Kong universities can freely express their opinions, and what tactics do they need to adopt in order to escape political pressure?

For many academics — especially those working in disciplines such as history, law and politics — staying in office means keeping their heads down and avoiding taking political positions on contentious issues or condemning the Chinese Communist Party.

“It is not that academics in Hong Kong are told what to say or not to say. Until August 2021, Peter Baher is Professor of Social Theory at Lingnan University and is now a Fellow at the University of Florida Center for Social and Political Thought.

Critics say the law is open to broad interpretation, threatening freedom of expression. It covers the crimes of secession, sabotage, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces – the maximum penalty for which is life imprisonment.

Perverted ways of discussing contentious issues

However, Baher said the fear of “strife” that “hangs over universities” has not stopped many academics from moving forward. Academics will find skewed ways to discuss contentious issues. But this requires effort and risk, a minority taste.”

Based on several accounts from Hong Kong-based academics, this is exactly the approach they take.

said Carsten Holz, professor of economics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and one of the most vocal commentators on the state of academic freedom in Hong Kong institutions.

But even he is cautious. He noted that with the shift to online teaching during COVID-19, it has become much easier to catch academics expressing controversial opinions. Although his university provides a recording service so teachers can post lectures online, Halls does not use it.

“I do not create or allow any recording of my classes, and the same goes for many of my colleagues,” he said, acknowledging the impossibility of preventing students from recording lectures without his permission.

Since the passage of the National Security Act, Holz said, academics are being more careful about how they express themselves online. “Most if not all of my colleagues who were active on Twitter or Facebook deleted their accounts around July 1, 2020, or at least deleted certain old posts,” he said.

Many academics said Times Higher Education Although they did not feel explicit pressure from their universities to refrain from speaking out on controversial issues, the things that frank academics say is a way to catch up. It is understood that in several cases, university leaders have received calls from those in positions of authority to keep faculty on their side.

“It’s a well-known fact that phone calls arrive,” one academic said, adding that this could have consequences for a professor’s salary or sabbatical leave request.

Academics hoped their managers would defend them when the time came, but many were pessimistic. According to Holz, “The best that university officials who wish to support academic freedom can do is to avoid external attacks on the academy to the highest degree possible.”

Another Hong Kong-based academic, who wished to remain anonymous, said academics could talk about issues indirectly: “The best alternative I can think of is to take inspiration from mainland dissidents on how to discuss serious issues, or express criticism, in a roundabout way.”

For example, teachers can discuss authoritarian regimes and oppression in the classroom by focusing on examples such as Belarus or North Korea. If academics criticized China directly, the academic said, they would do well to focus on specific policies – ideally past policies – rather than expressing a blanket condemnation of the CCP.

The college can also choose to “provide students with moral support” through secret conversations and choose not to enforce “oppressive rules.” For example, teachers are expected to inform the university administration of students if they find students showing a “forbidden” movie, such as revolution of our time– A 2021 documentary on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests – said the researcher.

Another scholar from Hong Kong who also preferred to speak confidentially said researchers were more free to bring up controversial topics in their papers than in the classroom.

“There is currently not much scrutiny of what we write about unless we apply for funding or a promotion,” they said, adding that a “lack of interest” in career advancement would “help with a sense of independence.”

Another way to avoid unwanted attention, the academic said, is to refrain from putting sensitive keywords in publication titles, a trick that works because “university reviewers often don’t have time to examine things other than the title or short summary.”

However, by virtue of their fields of study, some scholars may inadvertently run into problems. While it is difficult to find exact figures of how many have actually left, many academics Times Higher Education Talk to known colleagues who have left or are in the process of leaving.

“Researching and publishing on potentially sensitive topics in Hong Kong or China is not possible in Hong Kong anymore, and I don’t see what Hong Kong faculty can do to avoid the problem, except to leave, which many do,” said Holz.

He was pessimistic about the future freedom of speech of those who choose to remain in the city.

“I don’t think it is possible for academics to be politically active in Hong Kong anymore,” he said. “I don’t see any room for student protests to continue.”

But students have been finding ways to remain politically engaged.

Lah, a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who asked not to use his pseudonym, said that for those active in campus politics, the way forward was through more spontaneous and decentralized actions rather than organizing protests as part of centralization. students Union.

He said that was the students’ reaction after the statue of the goddess of democracy was removed from his university campus.

“We are kind of out of shape – the risk is relatively small because we don’t organize events [or] Using our own names… we invite friends privately to participate,” he said.

Some see no evidence of self-censorship

But not everyone agreed that Hong Kong’s political environment impeded students’ rights or affected institutional independence.

Ka Ho Mok, vice president at Lingnan University of Hong Kong and professor of comparative politics, said he had not made “significant changes as a researcher and university official except that we should be sensitive to said law,” adding that “in general, academics and university administrators still have institutional autonomy” .

While Mock acknowledged that “a few” of his classmates have left the city, he is confident that Hong Kong’s universities will continue to attract the best academic talent. He said faculty who have practiced sticking to the facts – a well-served approach – should have no problems.

“As a sociologist, especially researching the development and politics of contemporary Chinese society, I have been able to publish my work based on empirical evidence [and] Visualize the results of my research,” he said.

Mok took a pragmatic view of national security law.

“I don’t think, as university administrators, that we need to censor students if they don’t break the laws,” he said. College students are adults, and they should consider legal implications and consequences. As university teachers, it is our duty to engage students in learning social responsibility and to act properly.”

Jerry Postiglione, professor emeritus of higher education at the University of Hong Kong, has expressed his dismay at negative media portrayals of Hong Kong universities. He said he does not know of any academics who have been banned by their universities for their teaching or research.

Postiglione noted that universities are autonomous by law, albeit “subject to the limitations of accreditation of funding”, and that faculty members can “teach and research as they think best”.

He also noted that the West is not immune to its own problems with academic freedom, pointing to recent cases of censorship at more than one US institution. “There is self-censorship in universities everywhere in the world, even in my country,” he said.

Even academics who said the National Security Act significantly affected academic freedom noted that they were freer on “identity politics” than their colleagues in Western institutions.

“What we really need is a general emphasis on the university as a space for free discussion. Then again, this particular emphasis is now absent in Western universities as well,” Baher said.

“In fact, I would say that a junior academic in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia is having a harder time than that in Hong Kong today…the Chinese Communist Party ranks second in terms of threat to Western faculty and administrators.”

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