Hong Kong’s once-vibrant academic environment, known for its commitment to free thought, critical discourse, and intellectual inquiry, has experienced a troubling erosion of academic freedom in recent years, as Beijing tightens its grip on the city’s autonomy. The recent case of Rowena He, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) known for her research on the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, illustrates the growing restrictions on Hong Kong’s academic institutions. The scholar was fired from her professorship after Hong Kong authorities rejected her visa renewal application, preventing her from returning there from the U.S., where she was on an academic fellowship.
He’s scholarly contributions include her book Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China and numerous articles on China’s democracy movement. Her work exemplifies the rich intellectual tradition that Hong Kong once represented.
The persecution of academics in Hong Kong is not new. Benny Tai, a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), is a well-known activist and scholar who played a prominent role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which called for universal suffrage and fair elections in Hong Kong. In July 2020, HKU’s governing council voted to dismiss him after the Hong Kong government convicted him of charges related to his involvement in the Umbrella Movement. Unlike with He, however, the charges against Tai stemmed from his role in organizing and participating in pro-democracy protests, not from what he taught or researched as a professor. He’s case thus signals Beijing’s growing censorship of, and control over, academic output in Hong Kong.
He’s dismissal also fits into the broader context of the rapid erosion of freedom in Hong Kong. Just a few weeks earlier, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee delivered his annual policy address, in which he vowed to enact Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law by the end of 2024. This bill is Hong Kong’s version of the Beijing-imposed Hong Kong National Security Law of China, enacted in 2020, which has been used to destroy freedom of speech, press, and expression in the bustling city. Article 23 stipulates that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region must pass its own national security legislation prohibiting “any act of treason, secession, sedition, [or] subversion.” Past attempts to implement legislation under Article 23 have met with fierce public opposition.
In 2003, the Hong Kong government proposed a national security bill that sparked massive public protests. Facing the backlash, the government withdrew the measure. Since then, Article 23 has remained dormant, but the city’s political landscape has changed significantly. Confronting mounting restrictions, some pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and some political candidates disqualified from running for office. Hong Kong’s electoral system has been overhauled to reduce the influence of pro-democracy candidates. Now that opposition in the territory’s Legislative Council has been reduced, Beijing may see the opportunity to advance its agenda.
He’s case underscores this worrisome trend. It’s also a matter of global concern because it will have far-reaching implications for academic freedom and democratic values not only in Hong Kong but worldwide. Individuals and institutions from around the planet engage in academic exchanges with Hong Kong’s universities. But in recent years, foreign journalists, academics, and activists have increasingly found themselves denied entry to Hong Kong. As new cases like He’s emerge, they will intensify an atmosphere of self-censorship within the international academic community regarding perspectives that might challenge the official Chinese state line.
The international academic community must present a unified front in response to these developments. Academic organizations, universities, and scholars should publicly condemn the government’s actions against He and others. They should work to ensure that such cases of academic censorship are documented and widely reported.
Universities should also offer support and protection to scholars at risk because of their research or views. Programs that provide refuge and academic support to those encountering persecution need to be expanded to include Hong Kong scholars.
Academics from other countries should establish collaborative research projects focused on Hong Kong and China in an effort to counteract the suppression of academic freedom through the pursuit of knowledge and the dissemination of unbiased information.
Scholars and universities worldwide should express solidarity with their colleagues and students in Hong Kong, whose freedom of inquiry and expression is under dire threat.
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