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Hong Kong’s academic freedom under fire

Prodemocracy activists and cofounders of the Occupy movement in Hong Kong (from left) Kin-man Chan, Benny Tai, and the Rev. Yiu-ming Chu, showed their unity after announcing on Dec. 2, 2014, that they would turn themselves into police. Tai, an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong, has had professional problems since the protest that shut down parts of the city and angered China’s government.Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images/file

For weeks last winter, two Hong Kong newspapers deluged readers with coverage about Johannes Chan, a law school professor at the city’s oldest college, the University of Hong Kong. Readers of Wen Wei Po were treated to a leaked report showing that the quality of the law faculty’s research had slumped while he was dean, blaming it on Chan’s “dereliction of duty.” By “harboring” a colleague who had protested against Beijing’s dictates, Chan had “failed to undertake his responsibility as a manager,” the paper cried. Another story quoted the leader of a Hong Kong party loyal to Beijing: Chan was “absolutely unfit” for an academic promotion.

Savvy readers in Hong Kong knew that this was an attack from on high.

Chan, the respected architect of city human rights policies, has steadily pushed for democratic elections even as Beijing has tried to rein in the rowdy former British colony. While dean, Chan backed a law school faculty member who helped organize last fall’s 79-day democracy protest. The sit-in drew tens of thousands of people, many of whom gulped tear gas and endured pepper spray while chanting for the city’s chief executive to resign. Organizers and participants were vilified by the mainland press and some Hong Kong papers including Wen Wei Po, which trumpets Communist party spin.


The focus on Chan hasn’t let up. Nearly a year since Hong Kong’s political unrest began, he and other academics in the democracy cause have been questioned, scrutinized, and in one case, demoted. Hong Kong residents fear that professors can no longer challenge the government. Given the Communist party’s long history of squelching mouthy scholars, they’re convinced that the national government is directing the reprisals, intent on silencing people who might weaken state control.

In late July, HKU’s governing council — many of whose members are selected by the city’s chief executive — delayed a vice presidential promotion expected to go to Chan. Hundreds of alumni, journalists, and academics have signed a petition, urging the council to vote. “How can we in Hong Kong not believe that the whole thing is done out of political motives?” says city lawmaker Kin-yuen Ip, founder of an HKU alumni group started to support faculty who feel under siege. “That will seriously hurt academic freedom in Hong Kong.”

With the new school year weeks away, the delay chafes Peter Mathieson, the even-keeled British nephrologist who assumed HKU’s presidency in April 2014. He has said little about the matter in public. In an interview, however, Mathieson says the council’s stalling is a gambit in a battle over Hong Kong’s political future.


“This is not about who gets appointed as a vice president. It’s not about any individual candidate, or the chief executive. This is about issues surrounding relations between mainland China and Hong Kong,” says Mathieson. “People are very anxious when any of our independent processes are not fully free and independent.”

Hong Kong’s universities , faculty, and students enjoy liberties rarely tasted in mainland China. Beijing controls teaching appointments, grants, and lots of research. Scholars and students have been punished for speaking out. In the last year, President Xi Jinping widened his campaign to quell dissent. Staff of many NGOs have been grilled, their offices searched. In 2014, the founder of a civil society group, the New Citizens Movement, whose like-minded friends met over dinners, was convicted of “gathering crowds to disrupt public order.” This summer, hundreds of human rights lawyers and their staff were rounded up. Several are still missing and presumed jailed.

The climate changes dramatically when crossing the mainland’s southern boundary. After returning to China’s fold in 1997, Hong Kong’s constitution gave her citizens fair trials, public rallies, a free press and Internet, where writers enjoy panning party antics. The Basic Law grants academic freedom, too, allowing city universities to stage conferences about the Tiananmen Square massacre and the plight of Chinese human rights workers. Such events draw mainland scholars who slip over the border to attend, fueling an academic underground railroad.

While the one-country, two-systems pact lasts until 2047, many Hong Kong citizens say civil society has grown chillier in the last dozen years. Beijing’s demands for national security laws and patriotic school curricula were halted after those in Hong Kong roared their defiance in the streets. Since then, however, the city’s media has become more passive, with numerous incidents of self-censorship and shutdowns, and two violent attacks on editors, nearly killing one.

A frost fell last summer when Beijing ruled that Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” did not mean self-rule. Two months later, Beijing decreed that Hong Kong adults could cast ballots in 2017 for their chief executive, but a mainland-friendly committee would vet the candidates. The resulting furor stoked the fall occupation. In June, a majority of the city’s legislature rejected the Beijing-backed voting plan, calling it “fake democracy.” Democratic reform, Chan notes in a recent paper, will only happen with the central government’s consent.


Demonstrators opened their umbrellas for 87 seconds on Oct. 28, 2014, marking the 87 rounds of tear gas the Hong Kong police fired at unarmed student protesters in the same location the previous month.European pressphoto agency/file

During this unsettling year, several Hong Kong academics have been quizzed about their political views, their work given extra scrutiny. A Hong Kong Baptist University dean asked in June if the school’s youth research center was “maintaining its academic independence and neutrality,” a university spokesman said. The target was the associate director Ka-chun Shiu, a social work lecturer and democracy protester. Shiu kept his job, but the questions left a bitter taste. “This is political suppression,” he told the South China Morning Post. Shiu did not answer e-mails for additional comment.

City University of Hong Kong investigated and demoted Joseph Cheng, chairman of its political science department, after Wen Wei Po launched an attack on the professor last summer. Days before the articles, participants in a citywide poll said they preferred an elections plan crafted by Cheng’s civic group, Alliance for True Democracy, rather than Beijing. Cheng’s employer delved into complaints that the professor had plagiarized and took improper credit for articles published a decade earlier. “There was nothing wrong in what I did,” Cheng added. He says the university found he did not “meet the highest standards” and stripped him of his chairman’s title in March, three months before his retirement. Both Cheng and a university spokesman refused to release details. University officials told him “my political activities were too much and affected my work,’’ he explains.


Many university activists soldier on, relatively unscathed, but some have taken precautions. Kin-man Chan, an associate sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, helped start Occupy Central, the group that planned the sit-in. Before the barricades rose, he resigned several positions and a directorship of a China studies center to insulate himself and visiting scholars. “We all felt pressure. We got personal threat letters,” he says of his Occupy colleagues. He blames mainland government officials for this, and is convinced “there will be more to come, more repressions in the university.”

In the steamy early morning of Sept. 28, 2014, Benny Tai decided it was time to shut down parts of the city. Tens of thousands of young people milled outside the city’s legislative chambers, wearing safety masks. They were primed for police who had showered the crowd with pepper spray the night earlier after some students tried to break into the complex. Tai, a boyish, moon-faced scholar, sought to harness the energy and frustration. He jumped on a low wooden stage and shouted into a microphone: “Occupy Central has begun!” The cry marked the start of Tai’s professional problems, as well.

The idea to paralyze the city had been brewing since January 2013, when the associate law professor published an incendiary essay in the Hong Kong Economic Journal. Beijing, Tai wrote, might be prodded to lift voting constraints if at least 10,000 people blocked roads and commerce in the central business district.


It was the kind of loopy, grandiose plan that bubbles along the brick walkways of the University of Hong Kong, Tai’s alma mater. Founded in 1911, the university considers itself the Harvard of Hong Kong, drawing respected faculty and top-scoring students to the campus that hugs the base of Victoria Peak. Students see it as their right and obligation to clash with the mainland. In 1989, they shuttled money to Tiananmen Square protesters. Earlier this year, undergraduates published essays promoting the idea that Hong Kong declare its independence from China, triggering a tongue-lashing from the chief executive.

Tai, sometimes more than the students, was blamed for the protest havoc — the baton-wielding police, the large traffic knots. Four weeks into the occupation, an anonymous leaker calling himself “a scholar who loves the university” sent reporters e-mails and photocopies of checks hacked from university e-mail accounts. The professor had turned over to his school about $187,040 in donations, the source of which had not been disclosed.

Occupy Central quickly acknowledged that the Rev. Yiu-ming Chu, an Occupy cofounder, gave Tai the money for a conference and polling work, asking that he not be named. Amid whirling accusations of money laundering, the university began digging. Chan, then Tai’s dean and a key member of a democracy advocacy group, was pulled in. The audit this spring concluded that Tai, Chan, and colleagues failed to report gifts that met the university’s “expected standards,” even though the report acknowledged that the procedures weren’t clear.

In June the university’s governing council surprised the HKU community by refusing to endorse the report, leaving open the prospect that those involved might be punished.

Chan did not replied to interview requests. Tai said that given the pettiness of the offenses, and Chan’s minor role, he’s sure that officials are searching for other ways to keep his colleague from the vice president’s job. “I think Beijing considers the University of Hong Kong as a kind of revolutionary base,” Tai says.

Indeed some in Hong Kong may, as well. At the July council meeting, about 50 or so students stormed the session, accusing members of delaying the vote to appease the government. One council member was surrounded and collapsed to the floor, prompting a colleague to chastise the youth as Maoist Red Guards. Several council members contacted declined to comment.

Mathieson rues the impasse in part because it fuels the perception that Hong Kong’s rights are waning. “If people doubt the university sector is free and independent, they’ll start to doubt if Hong Kong is free,” he says.

Faculty and alumni say they’re certain outside forces are weighing in, “not from the pro-communist newspapers, but from the government itself,” says Michael Davis, a law faculty member. Their suspicions are rooted in a quirky remnant of colonial rule. By city ordinance, Chief Executive Chun-ying Leung serves as chancellor of all the city’s public universities, allowing him to choose many members of each governing board. That power grants him if not direct authority, then influence. Leung’s office has repeatedly denied that he intervened in the HKU appointment process. But Leung’s fealty to Beijing makes his critics doubtful.

Other academics see Beijing’s fingerprints, given the party’s long history of waging public campaigns against scholars and sowing unrest in independent-minded groups.

“What else could it be?” says Eva Pils, a reader in transnational law at King’s College in London. She’s a former associate professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong who studied law in Beijing. When dealing with an opposing force, party officials employ a tactic called fenhua wajie — that is, divide and disintegrate, she says. “You create discord and internal divisions. That’s a sure way of heating up feelings and anger.

“Johannes Chan is part of academic elite expressing support for Occupy Central,” Pils says. “They don’t want this voice in mainland China, and they don’t want it in Hong Kong, either.”

Suzanne Sataline is a New York-based journalist who reported in Hong Kong until July. She was an adjunct lecturer last semester at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center.


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