Earlier this month, I was honoured to be a guest of the Cambridge Union. During a panel discussion on Hong Kong, I was asked whether I thought it right that the Hong Kong chief executive should have been made an honorary fellow of a Cambridge college. It was a question I had anticipated to be asked — and it is not a new question. The college in question had graciously hosted me earlier this year, and I had given the question much thought.

“It really depends on what we would believe this university should stand to represent,” I said. I spoke on the core principles upon which an academic institution — at least as I understand one to be — must be built: on freedom of thought, enquiry and expression; on freedom of access, to people, information and sources; on academic independence from political, economic or other interference that may seek to discourage or prejudice honest inquiry.

Only in seeking to uphold and work towards these principles might we seek to ascertain what is true, or an understanding of what was, is and what might be. The freedom to pursue these principles, unattainable though they may be in their purest form, underlays what we may more generally call academic freedom.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

That evening at the Union I drew my conclusion with an unusual level of confidence. In a line reported across the student papers and widely retweeted, I said: “I don’t think Carrie Lam represents the values of academic freedom embodied by this university… so no, she should not have been awarded an honorary fellowship.”

I had been warned not to say this. Not by the Union, nor by the college in question. But tellingly, in a sign of the chill wind that today sweeps across our consciences, by friends and family in Hong Kong. What they fear, with what seems both increasing reason and paranoia, is that any attempt to publicly criticise the new administrative regime may be considered unpatriotic.

It no longer matters where I am, or to whom I am speaking or even precisely what I say. Lies can now be spun from the thinnest of threads. Those who had warned me had witnessed this in the way Benny Tai’s comments during a trip to Taiwan were taken out of context to suggest he had advocated for Hong Kong’s independence — in reality, he had merely posed a hypothetical question. In Hong Kong fear has compelled even good people to accept this deliberate blurring of the lines: between what is true and what is not, and what may be thought, said or done and what is now not only illegal but enforced retroactively. And, as is the way of depressive cycles, the more these lines are allowed to be blurred, the more we have to fear.

Cambridge Union
Cambridge Union. Photo: www.cus.org.

Whatever our personal situation, it is a matter not only of conscience but dignity to be able to speak that which we know to be true. We may be wrong, or in due course be shown to be, upon which our views will change. But to be denied this most basic of dignities is a most wicked thing, for it denies the individual, the person.

In honouring Carrie Lam with a fellowship, I believe the Cambridge college has made an understandable, if wrong, decision. I am sure in making this decision due diligence and fair consideration was applied.

Ms. Lam has an admirable record on paper and there is much one might admire in her character and work ethic. She is a capable administrator with the utmost dedication to detail that has allowed her, rightly, to rise to the upper echelons of the civil service. She has clearly been able to develop the connections and confidence of Beijing to be selected as the region’s chief executive. She is also connected to the college, having attended a programme for senior government administrators. It was during her time at Cambridge that she met her husband, and I am sure the couple have fond memories of the city.

However, such an assessment should not detract from a far more important consideration: that as chief executive Carries Lam directs an administration that has under her instruction chosen to further limit the freedoms once enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong. Her government has consistently challenged freedom of the press and the rule of law; berated journalists and judges as unpatriotic; seen severe limits placed on the core freedoms of expression, association and thought; allowed the expansion of united front activities to go unhindered, and often with government support; and seen the increasing politicisation of education.

hong kong independence fcc protest
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

As chief executive, Ms. Lam has allowed protestors of only one political persuasion to face double jeopardy in the name of needing stiffer judgements, argued for the disqualification of popularly elected legislators and, in one appallingly crass moment, refused to congratulate the Hong Kong team for winning the right to host the Gay Games. Unable to separate her own personal convictions with her role as the leader of a city’s whose freedoms are mandated by the concept of “One Country, Two Systems” and by international law, one can only conclude that the righteousness of her crusade against those liberal freedoms Hong Kong people hold dear is as much a choice as imposed by our national government.

Cambridge University would do well to note that due to Ms. Lam’s diktat, schools across Hong Kong may no longer use “foreign” textbooks. The meaning of this change is made clear, and furthered, in a letter sent by the Education Bureau to all local schools, and signed by Secretary for Education Li Kwok-cheung: “Should students have erroneous and extreme thoughts, principals and teachers should correct them with facts, bring this to the attention of their parents so that the case can be addressed.”

And under Ms. Lam’s instruction, university boards have been filled with political appointees; employment, promotion and the awarding of grants are vetted on political grounds, and “patriotism” openly encouraged. The student body, discouraged from discussing any political and most social causes and increasingly demonised and condemned for ‘incorrect thinking,’ has fractured into an oppressed majority that dare not think outside the lines. The minority that continue to think critically are now isolated and trapped into taking up extreme positions.

arthur li
Arthur Li. File Photo: CUHK.

There will be those who will defend Ms. Lam’s record, saying she inherited from her predecessor CY Leung a job no one wanted, and that she remains a puppet to Beijing’s strings. But Ms. Lam, having previously ruled herself out from running, made herself available and accept the job in full knowledge of what was required. She has not shown magnanimity in victory nor good will in seeking peace. Where the Christian virtues of humility and forgiveness would have helped heal wounds, she has chosen instead to inherit the jackboot and then to clamp down harder. A leader works to the limits of authority for what is true and for the benefit of society, providing for a sense of hope for the future. Ask anyone on the streets of Hong Kong today whether they have such hope.

It is also telling that under her leadership, Beijing’s unofficial support within the territory has widened. Direct dialogue has been established and maintained with a selected few opposition legislators and supporters. The signs are there that Beijing, if satisfied, is not trustful of a blindly loyal government of sycophants and rabid nationalists. Chris Patten was right in this regard: it would be Hong Kong people who would sell out the freedoms others had fought so hard to preserve.

Ms. Lam and her administration has engendered an environment of fear and oppression in what was once Asia’s freest and most vibrant city. In a city that has demanded more representative government for at least two generations, she sit astride an increasingly authoritarian system. And though she may deny this, the effect on the street cannot be denied or downplayed.

By awarding Carrie Lam an honorary fellowship, a Cambridge college has chosen to both strengthen and promote a relationship. The fellowship provides her with reputation and standing. This may not be something appreciated within the university itself, which tends to downplay such fellowships, but in Asia, where reputations matter, it has an importance and symbolism. It gives a degree of legitimacy that is, and may be used by some, to offset reasonable opposition. Indeed, as many a journalist has noted, Ms. Lam has developed a particularly cold and dismissive attitude to taking questions. As one local commentator remarked to me not long ago, “She issues diktats, and questions are an affront to her.”

Carrie Lam policy address
Carrie Lam. Photo: LegCo.

An institution of academic excellence must both embody and be a champion of academic freedom. It has taken centuries for Cambridge University to forge its world-leading reputation, and it is a reputation well deserved. However, reputations may fall on the back of a single poor decision.

Last year Cambridge University Press decided to comply with a Chinese request to block more than 300 articles from a leading China studies journal. It was a decision taken, we are told, at a junior level and was later rescinded after international outrage. Other academic publishers have not had the reputation nor the backing to stand by principle. I hope the Cambridge college that chose to award Carrie Lam an honorary fellowship will also be reviewing their decision. As with the University Press, for those who understand and know Hong Kong, reputations are at stake.

Whether or not Hong Kong’s core values and institutions are intact may be up for debate, but that such a debate must rage, and rage in the shadows, is testimony to the direction Ms. Lam has chosen to take the city. The Hong Kong that Ms. Lam has shaped — increasingly restricted and authoritarian, illiberal, intolerant and afraid — represents the antithesis of what a university like Cambridge should champion.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Evan is a UK-based researcher and writer on HK and China affairs.