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Politics & Security

Hong Kong and the Challenge to Supporting Academic Freedom

Critics from democratic countries should support academic freedom in Hong Kong, not by isolating it but by engaging with it even more, the author argues.

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An aerial view of Hong Kong, taken from a dormitory building at the City University of Hong Kong. Most of the buildings in this part of Kowloon are squat, unlike the skyscrapers in the rest of the district, since they used to be along the flight path towards the old Hong Kong airport. (Author Paul Louis via Wikimedia Commons)

Recent news highlights the precarity of academic freedom in Hong Kong. Rowena He, a Chinese Canadian scholar and expert on modern Chinese history, was terminated from her post as associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) after her work visa was not renewed. 

The Hong Kong Immigration Department on October 24 told He that it had denied her work visa renewal application. This denial came after the Beijing-backed Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po newspapers called on CUHK to "eliminate anti-China forces trying to disrupt Hong Kong." They singled out He for "slandering" China. The allegations related to her previous stint teaching at Harvard about modern Chinese history and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. 

He's expulsion is the latest suppression of dissent and freedom which has fueled a growing exodus from Hong Kong. More than 64,000 students – from kindergartens to secondary schools – have withdrawn from the local education system in the past two years. In the last academic year (2021-2022), more than 33,600 students left school. That is 4% of the total student population and a 10% increase from the year before.

In 2022, 361 academics left Hong Kong's eight publicly funded universities. That amounts to a turnover rate of 7.4% and the highest in more than two decades. 

Among the 5,120 academics employed, the percentage from mainland China increased to 35% (as of 2022), whereas those from Hong Kong (33%) and from overseas (32%) declined slightly. That made mainland academics the largest group for the first time. Hong Kong-origin academics privately worried that if mainland-origin academics increase, university research will be dictated by China's national priorities and not venture into sensitive political topics 

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Hong Kong Professor at Heterodox Academy Forum

These issues and more were discussed at an October 27, 2023 forum sponsored by Heterodox East Asia Community (HEAC). (Affiliated with the US-based Heterodox Academy). A long-standing, Hong Kong-based professor (X) and a human rights lawyer (Y), formerly in Hong Kong and currently abroad, shared their first-hand experiences and perspectives. 

Professor X acknowledged real concerns about academic freedom in Hong Kong. For that reason, the professor's real name and institutional affiliations were not advertised. Still, X also asked the audience not to forsake Hong Kong or to lump it together with China. 

Hong Kong remains more free and open than other Chinese regions. Furthermore, Chinese leaders consider this important for China's economic development. On July 1, 2022, Xi Jinping proclaimed that Hong Kong 

... has leveraged its role as an important window and bridge connecting the Chinese mainland with the world and has thus made an irreplaceable contribution to the miracle of long-term, steady, and fast economic development of the country [China]…. It has continued to maintain its strengths of being highly free and open and compatible with international rules. 

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Hong Kong academia is thus buffeted by the competing impulses of openness and national control. Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po are media outlets funded by the Central Government's Liaison Office. They are intensifying a terror campaign against academics they accuse of harboring pro-independence sympathies. The campaign also targets  Hong Kong's principal research funding body, the Research Grants Council (RGC), for having funded research on the democracy and localist movement. 

Chinese University of Hong Kong administration building. (©Citobun via Wikimedia Commons)

Supporting Junior Academics

Conversely, the RGC, and Hong Kong universities, actively recruit experts from overseas. Their academic freedoms, such as to research and to assess funding projects at RGC, remain mostly respected. 

Professor X said that the influx of mainland academics is not necessarily bad. They are qualified academics with diverse views and backgrounds, and many were trained in Western universities. What is more concerning is the steady exodus of Hong Kong and overseas-origin academics. These are the academics who have historically embodied the city's openness and international connectedness. 

Professor X encouraged junior academics to consider staying or coming to Hong Kong and navigating the current restrictions. Likewise, he encouraged senior academics (such as X) to protect their junior colleagues and to speak on their behalf. 

Engaging, Not Isolating, Hong Kong — and China

Outraged by Beijing's suppression of Hong Kong, among other actions, some people in other countries pushed for excluding Chinese entities. For example, excluding Confucius Institutes and TikTok. Specifically, they also call for eliminating Hong Kong's special economic status and independent currency (the Hong Kong dollar). 

But a strategy of punishing and isolating China, and by extension Hong Kong, fans resentful nationalism and delegitimates reformist liberals inside. It also divides Western democracies. This is exemplified by the divisive debate within and among Western democracies over banning TikTok. 

A more principled and sustainable strategy, as I argued earlier, is to call on governments to respect everyone's liberties. This means both engaging Hong Kong economically and vigorously supporting its people's aspirations for individual freedom.

Professor X requested greater engagement from his overseas supporters, such as professors in democratic Japan, South Korea, and the United States. He called for: "Putting academic freedom as an item requested in academic exchange (emphasize a clause of respecting and protecting academic freedom in MOUs), and paying attention to and reporting on academic freedom in Hong Kong and China. Accommodating academicians from Hong Kong and China due to political pressure." 

He also called for personally visiting, and perhaps working in, Hong Kong and contributing to its never-ending struggle for academic freedom. 

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