By Kenneth Ka Lok Chan

Hello, autocracy. At last, here we are, up close and personal! 

Beijing has decided to impose its version of National Security Law to Hong Kong, bypassing the city’s usual legislative processes and derogating from its own Basic Law, according to which it is for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to enact such legislation on its own under Article 23.

"December 1" Xi Jinping cockroach Winnie the Pooh graffiti spray paint protester umbrella Kowloon
This picture taken on December 1 shows a protester spray painting an image of children’s character Winnie the Pooh – widely used to mock Chinese President Xi Jinping – with the body of a cockroach. Hong Kong police have often insulted pro-democracy protesters by likening them to the insect. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Top officials from Carrie Lam and Matthew Cheung to Teresa Cheng and John Lee are singing praises without even trying to find out the details. There is zero public consultation, zero discussion, and no votes to be taken in Hong Kong’s legislature where the government controls a comfortable majority. 

The whole matter is carried out in such a way that those who are most affected, the people of Hong Kong, are the last to know. We are told Beijing can neither be questioned nor held accountable. Due process is derailed. 

When leaders tell us not to argue because Beijing is the supreme power that can do anything over Hong Kong, the logical conclusion can only be the end of “One Country, Two Systems”.  

Beijing says it is going to establish its own agency in Hong Kong to carry out this law, if necessary. Be sure this agency will be armed to the teeth. The enemies of “the enemies of the state” will never sleep, and they will do whatever it takes in the name of national security. The tentacles of the national security agency will reach education, media, civil society and so on. 

Carrie Lam June 2
Photo:, via CC 2.0.

Hong Kong people are now taken as hostages who are subject to instil fear, learned helplessness, humiliation, disillusionment and despair. Any one of us can be smeared and treated as a suspect. The captors say there is nothing for us to worry about, unless we have done “things that are bad”.

Separatism, foreign influence or colour revolutions are often blamed for the incessant turmoil in Hong Kong, and this is essentially a blame game to deflect all the mistakes and failures committed by none other than the government. Autocrats are known to resort to such plots to weaken their opponents at home. Why should Xi Jinping and his kind be an exception? Knowing that the international community will react strongly, Beijing’s “wolf warriors” will have enough materials to whip up aggressive nationalism where there will be no room for dissent. 

It’s cynical ugly politics.

The National Security Law – and the commotion which dances around it – is packed with strong rhetoric but legally speaking is deliberately vague. I have been thinking how academic freedom can still breathe peacefully with national security measures that know no limit.

hong kong baptist uni
Hong Kong Baptist University. Photo: GovHK.

By academic freedom, I refer to the UNESCO’s 1997 Recommendation which defines academic freedom as “the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.” (para. 27)

Moreover, the 1988 Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom has been another important foundation of a universal understanding about what academic freedom is and why safeguarding academic freedom is imperative for the civilization and progress of human society. It submits that “universities and academic communities have an obligation to pursue the fulfilment of economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights of the people.”

Universities and academics who still want to walk the talk in Hong Kong will be forced to face an increasingly challenging environment. Institutionally, publicly-funded universities in Hong Kong are already under pressure to declare their unconditional support for the law. As the Chief Executive is the Chancellor of all the universities, the management will be asked (instructed) to monitor their staff and students. I do not think university presidents, deans and heads will be pleased to become “thought police” on campus. In practice, however, censorship/self-censorship as precautionary measures to lower the so-called “reputation risks” for the universities will become more widespread than now.

The rich and the powerful can certainly exert pressure on the universities whose performance is increasingly measured in terms of resources generated from research grants and fundraising.

may 27 national anthem bill causeway bay
Photo: May James/HKFP.

At the faculty level, Law, Humanities, Social Sciences and anything having to do with China will be particularly vulnerable to “the new normal”. There will be “no-go areas” and so-called “lines-not-to-cross” here and there, delineated by state agencies and state propaganda. The situation is not dissimilar to the DSE History Exam saga which we have recently witnessed. Projects involving international partners will be subject to additional layers of vetting and some of the otherwise legit projects may suddenly be seen as “suspicious” because the leading researchers are “troublemakers” in the eyes of the authorities. 

The scope for public intellectuals to share knowledge outside academia is trampled upon by extraneous, previously irrelevant, considerations. We shall soon be told that civil society is no place for academics. There will be an increasing number of incidents to showcase the dos and the don’ts. Colleagues who choose to speak their mind will be ostracised and targeted. There will be a surge of complaints against non-cooperative teachers from members of the public. Like in China and at some universities overseas, fellow students and colleagues who “feel offended” are more inclined to file reports against teachers.

Like it or not, a new Cold War has descended upon Hong Kong, the National Security Law is like the reincarnation of the Iron Curtain. To safeguard Hong Kong’s academic freedom as Beijing imposes national security measures is a Sisyphean Task. The choice before universities and academics is stark but simple: Submission to the power-that-be and defend the tyrannical measures, or speak truth to power and stand with freedoms.

July 7 Sunday anti-extradition protest Mong Kok Tsim Sha Tsui Nathan Road
A protester holds up a sign reading: ‘Let Hong Kong be Hong Kong.’ Photo: May James.

However, Hong Kong has not succumbed to the “inevitability of dictatorship” when so many are willing to stand up and speak up. What they are fighting for is, however, no longer “One Country, Two Systems” but simply the HONG KONG and its liberal foundations that we have always known. 

What Karl Popper wrote in Open Society and Its Enemies 75 years ago suddenly appears to be an accurate depiction of our situation in the face of autocracy:

“This is an issue which we must face squarely, hard though it may be for us to do so. If we dream of a return to our childhood, if we are tempted to rely on other and so be happy, if we shrink from the task of carrying our cross, the cross of humanness, of reason, of responsibility, if we lose courage and flinch from the strain, then we must try to fortify ourselves with a clear understanding of a simple decision before us. We can return to the beasts. But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must get into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both, security and freedom.”

Kenneth Chan, D.Phil. (Oxon), is a former lawmaker and associate professor at the Department of Government & International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. In September 2019, he initiated the Election Observation Project to bring together scholars and civil society organizations to scrutinize electoral integrity in Hong Kong and to promote the international norms and standards for free and fair elections.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.