By Gordon Mathews
The national security law, with its reach extending ever further and its grip ever tighter, has led many to start calculating whether Hong Kong is still a city worth living in. The news these days buzzes with accounts of those who are leaving. I myself have chosen to stay, at least for now.
I have just signed a contract to keep teaching anthropology at my university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, for another three years. I could retire in August when I become emeritus and could move to Japan, my other home, but have decided to remain here.
Partly this is for my postgraduate students, seven of whom I need to see through to completion of their theses. But even more, I do it because of what I see as the importance of teaching classes in accordance with critical thinking.
“Critical thinking” — training students to examine the evidence from multiple perspectives and reach their own carefully considered judgement — has long been seen as the holy grail of Hong Kong university teaching, as has incessantly been emphasised to professors in recent decades. In classes like “Globalization and Culture,” “Culture of Hong Kong,” “Humans and Culture,” and “Meanings of Life” I have worked very hard to do this; indeed, teaching critical thinking has been the ideal by which I have tried to live my professional and professorial life.
This valuation given to critical thinking is a universal ideal in higher education and is highly prized in Chinese academic institutions as well as in Western ones. However, in China, there are obstacles; as one recent scholarly article, published in the UK by Tao Zhang, has argued, “the higher education curriculum in China, which is heavily regulated by the state, has become one of the main obstacles preventing Chinese undergraduate students from developing independent and critical thinking, particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences.” This is one reason why many brilliant mainland Chinese university students come to Hong Kong to study.
However, as Hong Kong becomes more and more assimilated into mainland China, will the same thing happen to Hong Kong? It has not happened yet — Hong Kong universities, and particularly my own university, CUHK, remain largely free of political influence over what is taught in the classroom.
But how long can this continue? So far those who have been detained under the national security law, and those who have been otherwise prosecuted in Hong Kong, have mostly been political activists rather than teachers. On the other hand, the increasing calls for “patriotism” may mean that critical thinking is called into question: does “patriotism” mean that all criticism of the policies of the Chinese Communist Party is off-limits, and more broadly, that love of country must be uncritical and unconditional?
Most of the academic literature on patriotism stresses that patriotism can indeed be critical: as one recent chapter on patriotism by the scholar Michael S. Merry argues, “critical patriotism is able to reconcile a love of one’s country with an ardent determination to reform and improve it.” But the professors in China I speak with often tell me that this view of patriotism is not recognised there and that any criticism of the Chinese Communist Party may conceivably lead to one’s demotion or firing, as may discussion of an array of topics ranging from gender to NGOs to civil society.
This does not often happen — but if students report the teacher to the authorities, or if the ubiquitous camera in the back of the classroom is monitored, then it may do so, judging from reports on Chinese social media and from the professors I have talked with. Will this happen in Hong Kong as well?
Being an academic in Hong Kong has its own perils, with extraordinary pressure to publish and one’s job on the line if one does not do so sufficiently. But over the past 20 years, freedom to teach critical thinking in Hong Kong universities has been remarkable. Is this era over? Do we now need to worry about student spies in the back of the classroom, or fear , in an era of classes taught on Zoom, the monitoring of our lessons by unseen lurking authorities?
I don’t think so but I’m obviously not sure. I estimate that there is a small but not insignificant chance that at some point over the coming three years I will wind up being charged, arrested, and jailed, just as there is a small but not insignificant chance that the brave reporters for Hong Kong Free Press might also meet such a fate.
However, I think that this probably won’t happen. Hong Kong is definitely becoming more restrictive in what it allows in terms of freedom of expression and encouragement of the free flow of information and ideas. But my hope is that for at least a few more years we will remain free to report, teach and express what we think is important to convey to our students and readers.
Doing this is essential to the proper functioning of a vibrant liberal society, with the free flow of information and free room for thinking. If we do not exercise our freedom as teachers or as journalists, then it may all the more rapidly be taken away from us. I myself seek to defend this freedom by teaching students in a conscientious and responsible way, giving all sides to every argument, and letting them discuss and decide for themselves what their judgment will be, which is what a responsible teacher should do in my view.
None of us in Hong Kong know what the future may hold. There is the possibility of a crackdown that will lead those of us who teach critical thinking in classrooms or who report and opine on the events of the day in the media, to find ourselves under police interrogation at 6 a.m. some morning in our increasingly authoritarian society.
There also are red lines that, if crossed by the authorities — if, for example, I can no longer use Google Scholar or Facebook, or can no longer read The New York Times or Apple Daily or Hong Kong Free Press — will make Hong Kong effectively unlivable and I will indeed leave. But for now, I will stay and do all I can, in my own tiny way, to keep Hong Kong Hong Kong.
Gordon Mathews is a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the author of Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. He has been awarded two Vice Chancellor’s Exemplary Teaching Awards during his time at CUHK.
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