by Peter Baehr

When I arrived in Hong Kong from Canada in August 2000, to take up a professorship in sociology, I was struck at once by the openness of the city’s academic culture. Put crudely, yet accurately, there was no “political correctness” in Hong Kong, no ideological policing of minds. The streets might be polluted by smog, but on campus the air was bracing.

Today Hong Kong is menaced by a different force, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As the Party tightens its grip on the city, with new national security laws, what can Hong Kong universities do to impede the curbs on academic freedom for which Communist states are notorious?

hong kong flag
File Photo: GovHK.

Answering this question requires us to recall what academic freedom is; to clarify the nature of the organisation that will attack it; and to be realistic about the support Hong Kong academics can expect from their Western counterparts.

Academic freedom is not the liberty for professors to do or say anything they please. Academic freedom is a norm which states that university professors should be free to teach, research and write on academic matters unconstrained by political and other kinds of interference.

Political activism in the classroom is not an exercise of academic freedom; it is the mirror image of state propaganda. And state propaganda is a speciality of Communism.

All Communist parties govern in essentially the same way. They replicate the Party structure at the granular level across all sectors of state and society: legislative assemblies, the law courts, the civil service, trade unions, the media, schools and universities.

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The Party controls its subjects through a combination of ideology, fear and material incentives. Loyalty is valued more highly by the regime than competence. Ideology is valued more highly than creativity. And, everywhere, the expression of thought, especially in writing, is closely monitored for dissent.

Because academic freedom is, in its modern form, a Western concept, it would be reassuring for Hong Kong professors to count on their Western counterparts for support against Communist censorship.

But is that likely? Only from some quarters. Across much of the Western world – and in Australasia too – the public use of reason, and the existence of open debate, are in full retreat, threatened by an alliance of non-academic administrators, student activists, and academics who demand unanimity on all important matters.

Speakers with unpopular views are disinvited from campus or no-platformed. Political tests are administered – as in the University of California system – to appraise a job applicant’s attitude to “diversity”. Complex questions in class are reduced to ideological formulae.

HKU banner
Photo: Stand News.

And Marxism remains robust among the professoriat, either as a default critique of capitalism or reconfigured, with contortions that would have astonished Marx himself, as identity politics. In short, the CCP has nothing to fear from an influential section of Western academics.

Outside this unworldly stratum, however, a more critical attitude to China is emerging. As the CCP’s soft power evaporates in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, its brutality is becoming plainer to Western governments, or at least harder to ignore.

The US, Canada, Australia and Britain have variously protested at China’s Covid obfuscations: its silencing of domestic whistleblowers, its manipulation of a credulous WHO directorate, its threats to cut off medicines, and its public lies, notably the claim that the West was the source of the coronavirus.

Western governments were powerless to stop the internment of a million Uighurs. These same governments are not helpless to call the CCP to account post-Covid and transform their political and economic relationships with it.  

Where does all this leave the Hong Kong academy? Co-authors and co-researchers abroad are likely to support us in any way they can. So will external examiners and reviewers of research grant applications.

hku The University of Hong Kong
The University of Hong Kong. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The Hong Kong Research Grants Council – an advisory body – has several foreign experts on its panels. Western governments are also paying attention to what is happening in the city.

But it is obvious that we in Hong Kong must rely chiefly on our own actions and on the tradition of independence and plurality of which we are the fortunate beneficiaries. To uphold this tradition, I am calling on:

  • the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong to create a special ombudsman to monitor academic freedom in Hong Kong and to publish an annual report on its status;
  • the Senates and Councils of all HK universities to adopt a formal academic freedom commitment, such as the Chicago Principles, affirming that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed”;
  • International ranking bodies – notably the THE World University Rankings and QS – to include academic freedom as a performance metric category.

People subject to terror cannot be blamed for keeping quiet and inwardly emigrating. That is not yet our condition. Hong Kong universities are still free to discuss unseasonable ideas and professors are still able to write opinion pieces such as this one.

HKUST protest
Photo: Stand News.

But the window is closing.  Acquiescence and opportunism are the great temptations now, the stilling of voices voluntarily in anticipation of their silencing.

Academics – especially their professional associations –  administrators, and students in Hong Kong are advised, as a matter of urgency, to work together in the coming months to craft a Hong Kong Charter of Academic Freedom.

If nothing else, the breach of academic freedom by the CCP, together with a host of other liberties, will then be fully visible not just to Hong Kong people but to all of those among the international community who still care about the life of the mind.

Peter Baehr is a Research Professor in Social Theory at Lingnan University.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.