More than 100 leading scholars from around the world have slammed the Beijing-imposed national security law, saying university leaders and academics must form a “united front” to defend against a “direct assault” on academic freedom.

In a joint statement released on Tuesday, 103 academics from 71 institutions in 16 countries raised concerns about the “universal jurisdiction” of the controversial security legislation in Hong Kong.

National security Hong Kong flag
Photo: GovHK.

The law, which asserts extraterritorial jurisdiction, criminalises secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, broadly defined to include disruption of public transport and other infrastructure.

The signatories referred to Article 38 of the sweeping legislation, which stipulates the law shall apply to acts committed outside of the semi-autonomous territory by people who are not permanent residents.

“The National Security Law, which under Article 38 is global in its scope and application, will compromise freedom of speech and academic autonomy, creating a chilling effect and encouraging critics of the Chinese party-state to self-censor,” the statement read.

Dr Harry Wu from the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and American scholar Dan Garrett were among the group of Chinese politics, law and modern history scholars who signed the open letter. Garrett was barred from entering Hong Kong last September after he testified before US Congress about the city’s anti-extradition bill protests.

HKU Lennon Wall
A photo of HKU’s Lennon Wall taken on September 28, 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The British Association for Chinese Studies (BACS) said teachers and students were concerned that, when passing through Hong Kong and China, local authorities could consider their educational materials to be subversive and punish them.

The association cited universities’ attempts to protect students undertaking China-related studies, such as anonymous coursework submission. The statement also accused Beijing of “weaponising” students to surveil their lecturers, saying university staff and students feared their statements made in class would be reported.

“Universities cannot be expected to resolve the problem alone… what is needed is a united front of university leaders and academics, Members of Parliament, and senior government officials to act in defence of academic autonomy and freedom of speech,” the signatories said.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In July, HKU fired pro-democracy activist and law professor Benny Tai over alleged misconduct. The 2014 Umbrella Movement leader filed an appeal against the expulsion, saying the decision was made by “an authority beyond the University through its agents.” Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong later hailed Tai’s dismissal as “poetic justice.”

The signatories called on prestigious universities in the US, UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand to “unequivocally condemn” the security law. It said without an outright reproof, the institutions would be regarded as implicitly backing the legislation.

“Such political censorship is antithetical to the pursuit of knowledge and
understanding. It also prevents a critical discussion about the PR China and its role in the world.”

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.