Since the arrival of the so-called national security law on June 30, the issue of academic freedom in Hong Kong has occupied the minds of many – is it safe or is it dead?

Academic freedom is not as straightforward a matter as one might think. Professor Peter Baehr of Lingnan University wrote in HKFP: “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.”

HKUST during last year’s protests. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The national security law and Hong Kong society can easily be construed as an academic matter. The mission statements of my university and school – the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences – ask me to engage in current Hong Kong issues, to expose students to “challenges” in human societies, and to provide organised information for the understanding of cultures and diversities from multiple perspectives. Checking whether we fulfil our mission provides a ready test of whether Hong Kong academia is safe or dead.

Do we cover, in our classes, the place of Hong Kong within the People’s Republic of China “from multiple perspectives”? Start with Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a covenant guaranteed by Article 4 of the national security law:” “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Do we provide cross-country and historical perspectives on governance, from Western democratic models to the Qing dynasty model, the fascist model, and colonialism? From colonialism follows the path that societies have taken to leave colonialism behind (gain independence). Are the experiences with independence referenda in Quebec and Scotland, and failed attempts as in Catalonia, central to our political science and sociology classes?

Photo: CCTV screenshot.

A first step in any scientific inquiry – the acquisition of knowledge using systematic and objective methods to understand a phenomenon – is the unambiguous definition of the terms we use. Do we examine, for example, if the Chinese Communist Party indeed has anything “communist” about it and indeed constitutes a political “party?” 

Professor Cai Xia, (now: former) professor at the Central Party School and a member of the “second red generation,” speaks of Xi Jinping as a “mafia boss”. If Xi is a mafia boss, then the organization he controls is a mafia and our central government has been hijacked by a mafia.

Do we examine the legality of a new “law” that violates existing laws, including international law? What happens if a passage in a law contradicts another passage in the same law? Is a “law” whose substance consists of little more than “invisible lines” a law? Does a law which establishes a class of “untouchables,” i.e., a class of people who can never be held accountable for their actions against those citizens whom they dislike, still constitute a law?

Is a “law” that does not apply to all people equally still a law? Article 38 of the national security law” specifies that it applies to everyone, i.e. to 7.8 billion people worldwide. Xi Jinping’s organization, no matter how advanced its surveillance operations, cannot possibly capture what these 7.8 billion people say and do, day in and day out. The “rule of law” becomes the “discretionary rule of the power holder” as the institutions of law and order are being undermined and destroyed.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam (centre) with Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng (left) and Secretary for Security John Lee (right). Photo: GovHK.

Does a “law” passed by a “rubber-stamp” organization staffed by a mafia-like organization deserve the English-language label “law,” or should it perhaps, rather, be called an “edict?” Should, in scientific inquiry, a “National Security” edict that fails to define “national security” not be called precisely that which it covers, such as a “subjugation” edict?

What are the consequences if this is not a valid law? To the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, the face-saving answer is clear: withdraw the “National Security Law” now.

In the meantime, enactment of the Subjugation Edict provides a bonanza for Hong Kong academia. According to the mission of my school “students are exposed to challenges in human societies by getting involved in actual research works.”

Students and faculty at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology are ideally positioned to be at the forefront of research worldwide into how a totalitarian regime operates and expands the extent of its territorial control. Should we fail in our mission, the mission of a taxpayer-funded public university, then academia in Hong Kong is dead. It’s as simple as that.


Carsten Holz is a Professor in the Social Science Division at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology.

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