One of Asia's most prestigious universities is on the frontline of a battle for democracy

One of Asia's most prestigious universities is on the frontline of a battle for democracy

Posted: Sep 19, 2021 5:51 AM
Updated: Sep 19, 2021 5:51 AM

Students and lecturers at Hong Kong's most prestigious university returned from summer break this month to a very different institution.

The Democracy Wall at the University of Hong Kong (better known as HKU) -- a pinboard where students once shared political thoughts -- is gone. The student union, which once advocated for students, is all but defunct, with four of its members facing charges of advocating terrorism.

Although many students and academics were happy to be back on campus -- many for the first time since the start of the pandemic -- a political chill hangs over the university that some staff say is influencing how they teach.

While the Hong Kong government told CNN the city's universities "continue to enjoy academic freedom," four current HKU staff who spoke with CNN on condition of anonymity said they are more cautious about what they say in class, afraid that their own students could report them to authorities.

The self-censorship began after June last year when Beijing imposed a controversial and sweeping national security law on the city. Since then, more than 140 people have been arrested under the law, including activists, journalists, politicians and educators, and, of those, 85 have been charged.

HKU -- the city's highest-ranked university with more than 30,000 students -- can be considered a microcosm of Hong Kong. Some HKU staff say a climate of fear and uncertainty surrounds what constitutes a breach of the law. And they warn that, like the city itself, the freedoms and rights that once set the university apart from those in mainland China are fast in decline.

"Academic freedom has been eroded. Freedom of speech has been eroded in this university," said one university lecturer, who asked to be referred to by the pseudonym Gordon as they still work at the university. "To pretend that it hasn't is ignoring reality."

The creeping changes risk jeopardizing HKU's status as a world-class institution, some faculty members say, by undermining its efforts to attract top staff and students -- threatening the future of one of the city's most prominent bastions of free speech.

How the NSL came about

HKU students arrived on campus this month wearing face masks -- a requirement in the city to protect against Covid-19. Almost two years ago, they wore face coverings for a very different reason.

In November 2019, students concealed their identity with masks as they barricaded stairways of the university's campus with couches and tables. Together, they amassed slingshots and Molotov cocktails, turning their university into a fortress against riot police who swarmed outside, armed with tear gas.

At the time, the city was months into a pro-democracy movement that had seen angry Hong Kongers -- many of them students -- face off in street battles against police.

The political situation unfolding both on and off campus frequently crept into classroom discussions -- some professors even referred to the protests as examples in their classes.

Some lecturers publicly supported student demonstrators. The day students turned HKU into a fortress, professors braved the tense face off to negotiate with police. Throughout the protests, staff helped students when they got arrested and provided mental health support, according to students and faculty.

Those protests were brought to a sudden end by pandemic restrictions -- and by June 2020, an increasingly frustrated Beijing had found a more permanent solution: a national security law in Hong Kong.

The law established the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries or "external elements." Some crimes carried a maximum penalty of life in prison. Although the law was vague and wide-ranging, authorities initially said the law would only target an extremely small minority of offenders.

"The national security law is a crucial step to ending chaos and violence that has occurred over the past few months," Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam said, as the law came into force last June. "It's a law that has been introduced to keep Hong Kong safe." In a statement to CNN, the Hong Kong government said "law-abiding people will not unwittingly violate the law."

But in the year since it was imposed, a pro-democracy newspaper closed down and nearly all of the city's leading pro-democracy figures have been either jailed or fled overseas. Protests, which once took place almost every week, have stopped -- and while authorities have said that is due to Covid restrictions, others see it as a way to suppress dissent.

And at HKU, once a beacon for freedom of expression and thought, some say it has already had a chilling effect.

Sarah Cook, Freedom House's research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, said political discussion at Hong Kong universities was once as free as at Western institutions. The university's openness had been "gutted ... almost overnight," she said.

A Hong Kong government spokesperson said universities continued to enjoy academic freedom, but also had the responsibility to make sure their operation complied with the law.

HKU said it continued to uphold the principles of "academic freedom and institutional autonomy."

"There are no boundaries to research and studies provided that they are within the law," a HKU spokesperson said.

Fears in the classroom

HKU lecturer Amy, who isn't using her real name for fear of repercussions, says she has become more anxious about covering certain topics since the national security law was imposed. She increasingly feels as if her classroom is becoming isolated from the real world.

Three other current academics CNN spoke to for this story said they too were cautious over what they said for fear of running afoul of the national security law.

On campus, rumors circulate among professors and students that a student who got a grade they didn't like reported their lecturer to the National Security Hotline, set up so the public can inform authorities about breaches of the national security law, according to two lecturers. The police did not confirm these reports, although a spokesperson said the hotline had received more than 100,000 pieces of information since it was launched in November 2020.

Rumors like this only add to the fear and chill that have swept over HKU.

When HKU switched to remote learning during the pandemic, two professors told CNN they refused to upload recordings of their lectures as they were concerned that any off-hand comments made in class could be used as evidence against them.

Amy said the university's leaders used "double speak" that only added to the confusion.

"The senior management of the university has insisted that we still have academic freedom, and that we should not self-censor. But then in the next sentence, they'll tell us to be careful and not to break the law," said one member of staff, who asked to be known as Mary.

The Faculty of Arts held a meeting last year with a member of the university's senior management team to ask for more specific guidelines on how the national security law would affect what they could write and study, according to two people who were present.

During that meeting, staff asked whether they could still teach about topics such as democracy in Hong Kong, Amy said. They were told they would not have to worry, if what they were saying was academic. They were also told "not to incite students," although it was not made clear what would be considered incitement, she said.

"I have found myself sometimes saying innocent things that sound like an incitement that then I have to turn around and make a joke that I'm not inciting people," she added.

Professors say this vague advice has left them unsure what could see them reported to police.

A university crackdown

As students enjoyed their summer break, a sign of what the national security law means for the university was unfolding on campus.

National security police officers raided HKU's student union on July 16, removing evidence as onlookers and media peered through the glass doors outside.

For more than 100 years -- almost as long as the university has existed -- the association represented students on campus. Now, it was being targeted by police for giving some a voice.

On July 7, the student union had passed a motion expressing its deep sadness and appreciation for the "sacrifice for Hong Kong" of a man who had killed himself shortly after stabbing and seriously injuring a police officer in a busy shopping street. In politically charged Hong Kong, where months of protests led many to see the police as the enemy, a minority saw the attacker as a martyr.

Authorities characterized the attack as "terrorism," and police quickly branded union leaders as "messengers of terrorism."

Two days after passing the motion, the student union withdrew it -- but it was too late. The city's leader Lam said she was "ashamed" of the university.

HKU management took action. They said they no longer recognized the union, meaning other services funded by the union -- such as Campus TV -- face uncertainty over how they will operate.

HKU said the situation would not affect the "continued commitment of the University to facilitate and support extra-curricular activities on campus." Hong Kong police said 32 students attended that meeting.

The HKU council said it would "until further notice and subject to review" ban all students who attended the meeting from campus and refuse them access to any university resources. These students' presence on campus "would pose serious legal and reputational risks to the University and have negative impact on its other members," the HKU council said in a statement.

An email seen by CNN which was sent to some students in August asks them to indicate whether they attended the July 7 meeting, whether they proposed or seconded the motion, and how they voted on the motion.

And on August 18, four members, ages 18 to 20, were arrested and later charged with advocating terrorism, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Some faculty members agreed the student union's motion had been in poor taste -- but they disagreed with the decision to bar the union from campus and prosecute the students. HKU law lecturer Eric Cheung resigned from his position on the university board over the decision to bar the students from campus. "I feel very sad when a university doesn't nurture students and help them correct their mistakes," he said, according to broadcaster RTHK.

Seven members of HKU's 60-member court, which oversees the university and is headed by the city's leader Lam, issued an open letter to the university council, asking them to withdraw the decision to bar members from campus and claiming the university had stripped students of their right to education. The ban remains in place. Lam was not one of the seven signatories.

"They're trying to shut down all student political activity and campus political speech. As much as possible, they want to eliminate any student organization that might have political content or engage in political activity," said Chris Fraser, a professor who left HKU for the University of Toronto in July this year.

One fourth-year government and law student at HKU, who was active in the student union in the past, said after the arrests, he and his friends removed everything in their dorm rooms they thought could breach the national security law.

"I think all students are sad ... that normal students are deeply affected by the incident," he said.

Some faculty staff worry that this latest incident may only worsen the chill felt over the university.

"I think that it's going to have a serious effect on classroom, debate and discussion and also just open discussion on campus," said Mary.

"Because by making an example out of a student union, I think it's going to deter students from feeling that they're safe, having political discussions, or breathing into more general discussions on campus," she said.

Not all students feel the same way -- one 25-year-old master's student at HKU who is from mainland China said the national security law didn't necessarily make him feel safer, but at least it prevented protests. "(The protests) were like a strong medicine that suppresses the symptom but also hurts the body itself."

The broader issues

For years, HKU has been one of the most highly ranked universities in Asia, and a place renowned for political discussion. It counted top political leaders among its alumni, including Hong Kong's current leader Lam and Sun Yat-sen, who helped overthrow the Qing dynasty to found the Republic of China.

In 1923, when Sun was asked where his revolutionary ideas came from during a visit to his alma mater, he responded: "I got my idea in this very place; in the colony of Hong Kong."

Today, his revolutionary zeal would likely breach the national security law.

For onlookers, that raises questions over the future of the university -- whether it can still maintain its international standing as freedoms grow more restricted, and what this means for the future of the former political hub.

HKU did not provide details of whether application numbers had dropped since the NSL was passed. The government, meanwhile, insists the national security law isn't hurting universities.

"With the restoration of law and order and a stable environment in Hong Kong, our universities can refocus on research and academic development, strive for academic excellence, and seize the unprecedented opportunities presented by the technological advancement and development of our country and the region, and in doing so continue to enhance our position as the regional education hub and our ability to attract international talent," a government spokesperson said.

And for now, HKU's rankings have not tumbled -- it's still placed 22nd in the world in the most recent QS World University Rankings. But the rankings are based on five years' worth of data, meaning that any effect on its international reputation since June 2020 is unlikely to be reflected for another few years, according to QS rankings spokesman Jack Moran.

A former student who graduated last year and who asked not to be named described a degree from HKU as a fine wine -- one from 1995 is great, one from 2020 is not.

Gordon, a current member of faculty, says he was warned by a headhunter to leave Hong Kong as fast as possible. "The longer you stay, the more it looks like you're kind of complicit with the system. And you'll be tarred with it," he recalled the headhunter saying.

At the heart of the fear is that Hong Kong University becomes more like institutions on the mainland.

"Until the national security law, it was night and day between what it's like being at a university in China versus a university in Hong Kong," Freedom House's Cook said.

Traditionally, Hong Kong has embraced academic freedom, dialogue and debate -- all qualities that set it apart from mainland China. Academics could produce research critical of the government, and students and faculty were able to share different views without fear of repercussions.

But now, people who have dedicated their lives to making Hong Kong University a world-class institution think Beijing and the Hong Kong government don't care about academic freedoms, Cook said.

"The universities really represent that more liberal culture that is such a big part of Hong Kong's identity as a city, and so different from what the Communist Party has imposed in mainland China," she said. "There's a reason why they're going for the core artery, that they're moving into what is at the heart of so much of Hong Kong."

"I don't think that there's any way to decouple academic and politics," Mary said. "I think to suggest that you can cleanse it of politics is naive, or at worst, misleading."

That in turn would lead to a major brain drain, as students went elsewhere, and universities struggled to recruit staff, even for academic subjects that didn't touch on sensitive topics, she said.

A current member of faculty, who asked to be identified as Helena, said every time one of her students gets accepted into an overseas post-graduate program, her heart feels "a little lighter."

"Although I'm sad that Hong Kong is losing that person, I understand they're going to be free and safe," she said.

Every day, Helena wonders what her limits are, and what would make her no longer continue to work at the university. "We have to kind of grapple with 'how long are we useful? Or do we become kind of, you know, just an instrument?'"

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Terre Haute
Partly Cloudy
59° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 59°
Robinson
Mostly Cloudy
60° wxIcon
Hi: 62° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 60°
Indianapolis
Mostly Cloudy
61° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 61°
Rockville
Cloudy
53° wxIcon
Hi: 58° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 53°
Casey
Cloudy
52° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 52°
Brazil
Mostly Cloudy
59° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 59°
Marshall
Mostly Cloudy
59° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 59°
Cloud cover returns this afternoon.
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Cases: 1675793

Reported Deaths: 27960
CountyCasesDeaths
Cook63468311202
DuPage1081271376
Will912621126
Lake800101085
Kane68370871
Winnebago41041560
Madison40087596
St. Clair36272596
McHenry34708329
Champaign26998197
Peoria26928368
Sangamon25754285
McLean23012218
Tazewell20647330
Rock Island18854361
Kankakee17910248
Kendall16203113
Macon15305250
LaSalle15030287
Vermilion14371199
Adams13156152
DeKalb12152133
Williamson12054174
Whiteside8297183
Jackson808694
Boone794383
Coles7888124
Ogle756887
Grundy738086
Franklin7330115
Knox7286169
Clinton7124102
Macoupin6951105
Marion6918143
Henry663777
Effingham660299
Jefferson6550143
Livingston597698
Stephenson584592
Woodford576892
Randolph5553100
Christian533682
Fulton526976
Monroe5246103
Morgan5076100
Logan495074
Montgomery491681
Lee478660
Bureau442691
Saline433869
Perry433275
Fayette430664
Iroquois421577
McDonough373761
Shelby347748
Jersey335653
Lawrence332533
Crawford332430
Douglas327337
Union306548
Wayne304063
White279833
Richland279557
Hancock274135
Cass266230
Clark265740
Pike264558
Clay258754
Edgar258049
Bond256925
Warren244066
Ford243959
Carroll236438
Moultrie234533
Johnson228131
Wabash217319
Jo Daviess216029
Massac215550
Mason214252
Washington212228
De Witt205530
Greene205340
Mercer204336
Piatt201614
Cumberland190026
Menard172213
Jasper161221
Marshall141321
Hamilton134022
Schuyler107710
Brown106510
Edwards104018
Pulaski103911
Stark81628
Gallatin7878
Alexander71912
Scott7136
Henderson70314
Calhoun6922
Hardin60116
Putnam5654
Pope5526
Unassigned1702433
Out of IL160

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Cases: 1003647

Reported Deaths: 16423
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1351072116
Lake661851159
Allen57674800
Hamilton46217464
St. Joseph44210611
Elkhart35807508
Vanderburgh32162480
Tippecanoe27859258
Johnson25007444
Hendricks23795357
Porter22856365
Madison18694408
Clark18505252
Vigo17393303
Monroe15218199
LaPorte15101250
Delaware15024261
Howard14681289
Kosciusko12260147
Hancock11682175
Bartholomew11548180
Warrick11270189
Floyd11059214
Wayne10946253
Grant10019219
Morgan9438176
Boone8891116
Dubois8249131
Dearborn819893
Henry8174152
Noble8003106
Marshall7891135
Cass7519121
Lawrence7433171
Shelby7171119
Jackson695889
Gibson6567115
Harrison646691
Huntington636899
Knox6360106
DeKalb628699
Montgomery6229109
Miami591498
Putnam577678
Clinton572171
Whitley563455
Steuben558976
Wabash5309103
Jasper527879
Jefferson509297
Ripley498686
Adams479775
Daviess4653114
Scott438473
Greene423596
Wells422588
Clay421360
White417364
Decatur4152102
Fayette405787
Jennings385961
Posey375844
Washington356150
LaGrange356078
Randolph343499
Spencer338743
Fountain333860
Sullivan327852
Starke315570
Owen313970
Fulton309167
Orange292663
Jay283445
Franklin265143
Perry264852
Rush260832
Carroll260633
Vermillion257254
Parke230426
Pike228443
Tipton227259
Blackford191841
Pulaski183157
Crawford159023
Newton156848
Benton150217
Brown145747
Martin138019
Switzerland134811
Warren120816
Union107016
Ohio84213
Unassigned0540