A new report by UK group Hong Kong Watch says that, although academic freedom is “alive and generally well” in Hong Kong, it is under threat owing to the politicisation of universities since the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests.

The report was written by Dr. Kevin Carrico, an expert on China and Hong Kong who lectures at Macquarie University in Australia. It was published ahead of a debate on Hong Kong democracy set to take place this week at the UK House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The report said there was a growing top-down backlash, following the Umbrella Movement demonstrations, to limit academic freedom and bring academia under the authorities’ control.

(From left) Johannes Chan, Cheng Chung-tai, Benny Tai. Photo: HKFP/Stand News/In-Media.

The key trends included controversial academic figures being removed from their posts, promotions blocked, or extra-legal campaigns launched to encourage their removal from universities. Occupy convenor Benny Tai was named as an example of academics facing extra-legal action.

The report also said “state-appointed and politically-connected figures are governing universities in a manner divorced from the will of students and faculty” and that “there is a growing push to limit freedom of speech without any legal basis,” namely in the Hong Kong independence banner in campus saga.

“Although academic work in Hong Kong remains considerably freer than in the rest of the People’s Republic of China, these trends suggest that elements of academic control in place elsewhere in China are gradually being incorporated into the Hong Kong system, threatening the city’s academic freedom and thus its universities’ reputations,” Carrico wrote.

Carrico suggested that local academic freedom monitoring groups should raise awareness of infringements to academic freedom, educators should openly confront “taboo” topics in Hong Kong, and the UK governments and other governments should speak out.

Carrico also said the chief executive’s role as chancellor to all of Hong Kong universities should be abolished, so that control is returned to universities.

“The post-1997 arrangement can present challenges: Chief Executives are chosen by and thus primarily accountable to the Chinese government, far from a neutral party on matters of academic freedom. The two most recent Chief Executives have made comments that demonstrate insufficient dedication and even hostility to the academic freedom and freedom of speech central to academic inquiry in Hong Kong,” he wrote.

The anti-Hong Kong independence statement signed by heads of 10 Hong Kong universities.

He said international universities and scholars should also collectively reaffirm their commitments to academic freedom, and make clear that continued infringements of these freedoms will have consequences for inter-university cooperation.

“Hong Kong was a longstanding shelter for Chinese citizens fleeing Party-state repression. As this repression gradually makes its way into Hong Kong in violation of ‘one country, two systems,’ universities around the world should provide shelter for academics pressured out of their positions,” he wrote.

Chairman of Trustees at Hong Kong Watch Benedict Rogers said academic freedom is a right enshrined in Basic Law, and Hong Kong has some of the finest universities in the world.

“Their reputation depends on their independence, and we are concerned that this independence appears under threat. While academic freedom still exists in Hong Kong, we are concerned by the direction of travel and will watch to ensure that the rights enshrined in Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration are upheld,” he said.

In response, a spokesperson for the Education Bureau said academic freedom is an important social value treasured by Hong Kong and protected by the Basic Law: “It is also a cornerstone of our higher education. The HKSAR Government attaches great importance to upholding academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”

“All eight University Grants Committee-funded universities are independent and autonomous statutory bodies. They have their own governing ordinances and statutes which set out their objectives, functions and governance structures. The legislation provides the universities with the power and freedom to carry out their objectives and functions. By law, the Chief Executive is the Chancellor of the universities. The purpose is to maintain the linkage between the Government and the universities, and to demonstrate the Government’s support for the higher education sector. The powers and duties of the Chancellor are clearly defined by law and they aim at meeting the needs of the universities. This statutory system has been in place and operating effectively over the years.”

“We express regret over the comments made by the report against the higher education of Hong Kong which are unfounded and unfair.”

Last week, Chief Executive Carrie Lam criticised a previous report by the group as foreign “meddling” in Hong Kong’s affairs.

But Lord Ashdown, who wrote the report, and Lord Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, both said Lam’s comments were an overreaction. Patten said Lam’s statement was “a rather unwise, over the top response which does not actually recognise the obligations on Britain or the obligations on China under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.