A monument to freedom, the “Goddess of Democracy” has long been a symbol of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and a testament to the freedoms the semi-autonomous city has enjoyed compared to the rest of China.
They had been expected to protest again this year. But with coronavirus halting the opportunity for public assembly, Beijing imposed a new national security law on the city in June, before the unrest could resume. The law, which bypassed Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature, bans subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces, with severe prison terms for anyone found in contravention.
From when the legislation was first mooted, the government has always insisted it will only target a handful of individuals and not have a widespread impact on Hong Kong’s political freedoms.
Hong Kong has some of the best universities in Asia. But in a growing climate of fear and self censorship, it is now unclear what can legally be said and taught in a classroom — and whether student activism, both on campus and off, may become a thing of the past.
As university lecturers in the social sciences across Hong Kong prepared for the fall term, writing lesson plans, sending out book lists, and testing Zoom setups, they also engaged in a furtive attempt to understand if their teaching might be deemed illegal.
Since it was proposed by Beijing, observers have warned that the vague language and sweeping nature of the security law gives the authorities broad scope to crack down on a variety of behaviors, while offering little guidance to those affected on how to stay the right side of it.
One lecturer at CUHK described how faculty members pressed university administrators in emails, encrypted messages and in hastily convened staff meetings for reassurances or guidance, with little success.
“The general consensus is we know too little and the wording of the legislation is too vague for us to prepare for it,” said the lecturer, who spoke anonymously as they had not received permission from the school to do so. “So, it is essentially up to individuals to decide whether they want to be brave and ignore the whole thing, or self-censor.”
Tai’s sacking was a “clear breach of procedure, since a committee overwhelmingly made up of political appointees reversed a recommendation made by an academic body (the University Senate) not to terminate Tai’s appointment,” said Sebastian Veg, a China specialist at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, who was previously based in Hong Kong for several years.
“There is a new red line for academics who are also active in local politics or social movements,” he added. “But it’s too early to say whether that red line will further expand into teaching and research itself.”
CUHK did not respond to a request for comment about the law or any action taken because of it. The government has denied that the law threatens academic freedom.
Long before it was officially criminalized by the new security law, independence advocacy has been a contentious issue on campuses.
“By not spelling out precisely what actions or words count as secession or subversion — by not clearly delineating Beijing’s ‘red lines’ — it gives the authorities the power and leeway to apply the law as they see fit, while forcing everyone into a defensive mode of timidity and self-censorship to avoid possible transgressions.
“That includes journalists, academics and others in the public space,” Richburg wrote, adding that “we do not intend to do anything differently at JMSC, as we adhere to our mission of training the next generation of reporters and imbuing them with journalism’s international best practices.”
But it could drastically alter the nature of the institution.
Some HKU students are less than reassured.
“This upset and disappointed a lot of students, as we thought that HKU would stand alongside students,” she said. “The union and other associations has organized forums to express our concerns over academic freedom and freedom of speech to the university. We will look closely when the academic year starts, to see if there is any censorship in classrooms, especially for socio-political courses.”
HKUSU was one of the founding members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), an umbrella organization which included unions from the city’s largest universities. In 2014, HKFS was one of the main groups leading the Umbrella protests, and members even debated city officials on live television.
“The involvement of students (in the protests) was important,” said Lester Shum, onetime deputy secretary-general of HKFS and now an elected lawmaker. “At that time, not so many people were getting involved in politics, but when the students came out and said we are fighting for our freedom and our future, many people felt touched and were inspired to join.”
Shum said that while last year’s protests were not as dependent on student groups for their organization as the 2014 Umbrella Movement, for example, they were still largely led by young people.
“This generated (great attention) on both the local and international level because when some protesters are so young, maybe 15 to 18, and go to the front lines to face the threat of tear gas and rubber bullets, that is an important moral force,” he said.
The uncertainty created by the new law, across a host of fields and industries, has been described as a “feature not a bug” by some critics, who argue that by not clearly demarcating red lines, the government encourages greater self-censorship in academia, media and politics.
Some schools will adopt code names for participants in certain classes, the WSJ said, so that Chinese and Hong Kong students, thousands of whom study at US institutions, can take part without concern that they might face repercussions at home.
For some students, at universities in both Hong Kong and the United States, the coronavirus pandemic adds another wrinkle to this issue: many are taking part in their courses via video link from their homes in China. This puts them at greater risk of surveillance, and students may be less willing to participate in politically sensitive discussions while under Chinese jurisdiction.
The CUHK professor said their “number one concern” was how to cater to Chinese students who have been unable to return to the city due to the pandemic.
“We will have to start our semester online,” they said. “How are we going to discuss sensitive topics with them?”
Many students already enrolled in Hong Kong universities have passed through the crucible of last year’s protests, and are likely so politicized that the law will struggle to censor them completely.
“The recent protests awakened a lot of students, resulting in an increased level of political awareness generally,” said Cheng, the HKUSU vice president. “There may be some kind of self-censorship after (the law) has been implemented, but Hong Kongers are resilient and creative.”
“The fundamental problem is that you have a whole generation of young people who are not just dead against, but actually hate China,” the aide said, on the condition on anonymity. “How are you going to have ‘one country, two systems’ work if you have a whole generation hating that country?”
The solution seen by many on the government side is to introduce something akin to the patriotic education curriculum followed in China, where inculcating a love of country is a key task for schools.
The security law calls for the government to exercise “supervision and guidance” over schools, and it’s not the only recent legislation that could change how they operate. Under new laws mandating respect for the Chinese flag and national anthem, Hong Kong schools will soon be looking and sounding a lot more like their counterparts across the border.
Shum said he was concerned that “in the near future, maybe three to five years’ time, there may be very serious consequences and effects” from the security law and changes to education, resulting in a far less political body of students.
One high school teacher, who requested anonymity to talk about a sensitive issue, said their school had told teachers the national anthem would be played at key times during the day, and students will participate in regular flag-raising ceremonies.
“The school has always acknowledged the mainland (but) this will certainly be amped up with seeing the flag around the school and singing the anthem,” they said. “We do not sing any songs to celebrate Hong Kong at the moment, so this will be a new concept to celebrate country.”
Responding to a series of questions about the security law, Hong Kong’s Education Bureau said the new legislation only targets a small minority of lawbreakers, and “protects the life and property, basic rights and freedoms of the overwhelming majority of citizens as well as maintains prosperity and stability of (Hong Kong).”
“Hong Kong is a free and pluralistic society which will continue to thrive on the rule of law, free flow of information and capital, and freedom of speech and expression, etc. These fundamental values are upheld under the Law to ensure the continuous prosperity and stability of Hong Kong,” a spokeswoman said, adding that existing safeguards for “academic freedom and institutional autonomy” contained within the city’s de facto constitution remain in force.
Shum was less than convinced, predicting a revamp of how schools in Hong Kong teach, and the abandonment of topics such as liberal studies, which aims to foster critical thinking.
“(The government) thinks training students to be critical is the same as training them to be radical,” he said.