Academics in Hong Kong are facing new worries today after the mainland government yesterday abruptly imposed a controversial new security law that critics say could infringe on human rights and chill academic freedom.
“We don’t know exactly how the law will be implemented, but just the perception and uncertainty that it creates will be a problem for the universities,” says Sun Kwok, a Hong Kong–born astronomer who was dean of science at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) for 10 years.
The law was imposed by the government in Beijing after months of demonstrations in Hong Kong. The protests were initially triggered by a proposed extradition bill that could have subjected Hongkongers to the mainland’s legal system, but grew over worries about the erosion of the city’s quasi-independent status. The law gives authorities new powers to punish “offenses of secession, subversion, organization, and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security” in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong authorities began to enforce the law today, arresting hundreds of protesters—including those holding signs with independence slogans—for alleged violations, according to media reports.
Although the law specifically calls for continuing the policy of one country, two systems that grants Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and individual rights, university officials fear it will make it more difficult to recruit top faculty and students from outside the city and may even encourage local scholars to seek jobs elsewhere. “We will have a hard time convincing future recruits that they will have complete academic freedom to teach and do research,” says Kwok, who is now at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada. “In the last 15 years, Hong Kong universities have made huge progress and are increasingly recognized as major centers of excellence in Asia. Can we maintain this gain?”
Hong Kong’s Basic Law, a miniconstitution that came into effect with the 1997 transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China, called for the city to enact a security law. Previous attempts to craft one foundered, so mainland officials decided to step in. On 22 May, China’s National People’s Congress authorized its standing committee to draft a law. Yesterday, the congress approved the law, and President Xi Jinping signed it into law. It took effect at 11 p.m. yesterday.
The heads of five Hong Kong universities expressed confidence that the law would not upset the one country, two system concept. On 1 June, the heads of Lingnan University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and HKU jointly endorsed the proposed law before its details had been revealed.
The five heads wrote that they “understand the need for national security legislation.” But, they pledged, “Our universities will continue to stand fast in upholding the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, as well as promoting academic excellence and embracing diversity, and contributing to society.”
Others are skeptical. The law “is a retrograde step for Hong Kong,” says Matthew Evans, an ecologist and dean of science at HKU, emphasizing that this is his personal view. Although he is “not expecting a huge impact on what we do” in the faculty of science, he predicts that in the social sciences, law, and other disciplines, “people whose research or teaching could fall foul of the law will be self-censoring.” And there is likely to be an impact on recruiting, even for the sciences. “It will play into the issue that we’ve had persuading people from North America who are not ethnically Chinese to think about coming to Hong Kong,” he says.
A secondary impact could come from a decision by the United States, in response to the new law, to impose the same restrictions on exports of defense and dual-use technologies to Hong Kong as it does on China. Evans worries the United States move might affect imports of laboratory equipment.
Others fear the law could have more direct effects on research. Bruce Lui, a lecturer in journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, notes that the mainland’s concept of national security extends to writing about economics. That means scholars might have to tread softly if reporting, for example, inflation statistics that might embarrass the government.
Peter Baehr, a professor of social theory at Lingnan University, points out that the mainland government pushes for input into the dissemination of certain research results. This was seen recently in “the draconian actions against labs that, and persons who, published the genome of the [COVID-19] coronavirus on open platforms,” he says.
Chan King Ming, an environmental scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, thinks the law could affect international collaborations, because it extends to those “colluding” with a foreign country and applies to foreigners based in Hong Kong. He thinks the law could discourage joint studies with foreign organizations disliked by Beijing in areas covering environmental and food safety issues.
There could also be subtle shifts in the academic orientation of university curricula. “Will there be a push for a stronger focus on disciplinary teaching, away from liberal education?” Kwok asks. “There have been voices in certain political circles in Hong Kong that liberal education is to blame for the student unrest in 2019,” he says. Lui adds that the expressions of support for the law from university administrators is evidence that already “only those people supporting Beijing can be leaders in the university sector.”
Some scholars are urging caution before pronouncing the one country, two systems principle dead. “I believe we need to wait before coming to that very serious and in my view tragic conclusion,” says one foreign scientist who asked not to be identified because of the political sensitivities. He adds that the law’s lack of detail, and questions about the consequences of violating it, are leading to rampant speculation that is inflamed by international media coverage. As a result, “Anyone who is able to leave is probably considering it seriously,” he says. (The United Kingdom says the law has prompted it to ease immigration rules for more than 3 million Hong Kong residents eligible to gain U.K. residency.)
The timing of the new measure is seen as sending a stern warning to Hong Kong. Evans notes that 1 July is Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day, marking the U.K. handover and the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. “It’s not a coincidence,” he says, “that the law came out yesterday.”