A top UK university for Asian studies has urged its academics to stop recording classes about Hong Kong and China, citing risks to both teachers and students under the Beijing-imposed national security law.
SOAS University of London said the new measures were intended to ensure the safety of its staff and students but cautioned against any self-censorship in its classrooms.
In internal guidance obtained by the China Research Group, SOAS warned that lecturers and students could face arrest if they carried physical or electronic copies of lecture notes when visiting Hong Kong or mainland China.
It said such materials may be used as evidence of acts deemed “subversive” under the security law.
The national security law, which criminalises vaguely-defined acts including secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism with up to life imprisonment, also applies to non-Hong Kong citizens and residents from outside the region. Its claim of extra-territorial jurisdiction caused alarm among international rights groups and critics when it was passed by Beijing last June.
The university also highlighted the risk of collaboration with research partners in the region, saying local academics “may not have a choice if they are asked to collaborate in any investigation against their foreign partners.”
The new guidance said the recording of class discussion should be avoided and students should be trained not to reveal their identity when taking part in class debates.
The university, however, cautioned against censoring sensitive discussions in its classes. “Self-censoring in order to avoid such risks is, needless to say, unacceptable and should not be contemplated,” its guidance obtained by The Times read.
SOAS said the new guidance was necessary to uphold its duty of care to staff and students. “Since this law is so stringent and has extra-territorial applicability, our duty of care to our students from Hong Kong and Mainland China requires us to make sure that computers that staff may carry with them to Hong Kong and mainland China do not contain information that can potentially land our students into trouble with this law,” a statement read.
“The risk of this happening is low, but if only one of our current or former students ends up being caught out by the National Security Law because of an action or an inaction on our part, it falls below the standards we uphold at SOAS.”
The university added that “a whole host of topics are potentially off-limits because of this law, topics that lie at the heart of the social sciences and humanities… ethnicity, sovereignty, identity, the quality of governance etc.”
Since its passing, the security law has been used to arrest over 100 people in Hong Kong, at least one of whom was a foreign national. Among those who have been charged, 47 democrats are accused of “inciting others to commit subversion” after organising or taking part in an unofficial primary election last July.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
There is growing concern that Beijing is exerting increasing influence on Western academic institutions. In 2019, a UK parliamentary report listed examples of how organisations affiliated with Beijing appeared to suppress freedom of speech and academic freedom at British universities.
The China Research Group, formed by a group of conservative UK parliamentarians to monitor long-term challenges and opportunities associated with the rise of China, said the threat of the law and pressure from Beijing may have already affected free debate at other UK universities.
“This shows the incredible reach of new repressive laws in China – students in London are being advised they could be arrested on the basis of their lecture notes if passing through Hong Kong,” CRG member Neil O’Brien told The Times.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg — through funding agreements and partnerships with UK universities, Beijing can gain a lot of influence on our universities and I worry this is already having a stifling effect on lectures and tutorials happening in the UK.”
In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been broadly used to silence and punish dissidents in China.