Seated in front of shelves stuffed with leather-bound books and wearing a navy suit, a two-tone blue tie and a clip-on microphone, Albert Chen looks every inch a scholar. To his right, the initials of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) – where he is a professor and chair of constitutional law – stand proudly, and remain in shot for the entirety of the 13-minute-long video lecture, the first of 24 for HKU’s mandatory national security course.

A screenshot of Albert Chen, professor and chair of constitutional law at the University of Hong Kong, giving the first video lecture for HKU’s national security course. Photo: Supplied.

Without uttering a greeting and speaking in English, Chen begins in a monotone: “This lecture is mainly about the Chinese constitution, the Basic Law of the HKSAR, and Hong Kong’s national security law.” Within the first minute, he glances down as many as 10 times while he speaks.

From this academic year, undergraduate students at HKU and other publicly-funded universities across the city must view pre-recorded online lectures on the Beijing-imposed security legislation. In July 2021, former Education Secretary Kevin Yeung said it was a “requirement” for higher education institutions to incorporate national security education into their curriculums. 

To graduate from HKU, students must pass a 20-question multiple-choice test on the subject. The questions, which can be attempted multiple times, will be made accessible once all of the videos have been watched. Unlike with other online lectures, the university has disabled the fast-forward function for the national security course.

The University of Hong Kong’s Main Building. Photo: HKU.

The content of the HKU course – “Introduction to the Constitution, the Basic Law and the National Security Law” – some of which has been seen by HKFP, highlights the four offences under the national security law: secession, subversion, terrorist activities and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.

It also reminds students that the maximum penalty is life in prison.

In one video, students learn that the “riots of 2019” made Beijing aware of “an extremely serious loophole in Hong Kong law.”

‘No concept of citizens of Hong Kong’

Nearly half of the lectures are conducted by Chen, who also advises Beijing as a member of the Basic Law Committee, and has supported some controversial policies, including the joint-checkpoint at West Kowloon Station that saw mainland Chinese laws enforced on Hong Kong soil.

The remaining lectures are conducted by HKU law associate professors Eric C. Ip and Michael Jackson, principal lecturer Sau Kong Lee, and lecturer Jacky C. K. Yeung.

A screenshot showing the HKU course content. Photo: Supplied.

According to the course materials obtained by HKFP – including transcripts, lecture slides, and test papers – Chen emphasises that mainland China’s supreme law, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, applies in Hong Kong. Although, he says, there are instances where the differences between the mainland’s “socialist system” and Hong Kong’s “capitalist system” make certain provisions unsuitable.  

Chen also notes that since Hong Kong is not a state, legally speaking there is “no concept of citizens of Hong Kong.” When the city enters into international agreements on economic and cultural matters, or takes part in the Olympic Games, it can use the name “Hong Kong, China,” he adds. 

As background to the introduction of the national security law, Chen introduces Article 23 of the Basic Law, which mandates that the city pass its own security law, acknowledging that it was “very controversial, as some people expressed concerns that it may curtail civil liberties in Hong Kong.”

After an estimated half-a-million people marched against it in 2003, the government shelved the legislation. In one lecture, Chen says that it was not enacted several years later because the policy of the central government towards Hong Kong was “liberal at the time.”

Protest against Article 23 on July 1, 2003. File photo.

The watershed moment, as Chen put it, was “the riots of 2019,” which convinced Beijing that there was an “extremely serious loophole in Hong Kong law that needed to be plugged urgently”. The loophole, according to Chen, was the lack of a law to protect China’s national security in the city, which allowed political activists to openly advocate for Hong Kong independence.

HKFP has reached out to HKU for comment on the course and its content.

Hypothetical, not real-life examples

Since Hong Kong’s national security law was imposed by Beijing on June 30, 2020, there have been 215 arrests and 128 people and five companies have been charged, according to figures from the Security Bureau. At the time of writing, 19 people have been convicted of, or are awaiting sentencing for, national security offences.

There are also a number of national security cases still making their way through the courts – the largest involving 47 former opposition lawmakers and activists accused of conspiring to subvert state power.

Supporters of Tong Ying-kit, Hong Kong’s first man to be convicted under the national security law, place leaflets in a mall adjacent to the High Court to wish the activist “peace and safety,” after he was sentenced to nine years behind bars on July 30, 2021. Photo: Studio Incendo.

In July 2021, Tong Ying-Kit became the first person convicted under the security legislation and was jailed for nine years. He was found guilty of inciting secession and terrorist activities after driving his motorbike with a flag reading “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” into three police officers during a demonstration in Wan Chai a day after the law came into force.  

In the course materials reviewed by HKFP, Chen mentions Tong’s case only once – in his last lecture about criminal procedure. It is used as an example to explain that trial by jury is not guaranteed in national security cases, which allow for proceedings to be heard by handpicked national security judges in some circumstances. 

Jury trials have been a feature of Hong Kong’s common law legal system for more than 150 years and have been described by the city’s own justice department as one of the judiciary’s “most important features”. 

Professor Chen does not discuss other details of Tong’s case, or the verdict. 

Photo: Lei_UK, via Instagram.

Beyond that, no other real-life scenarios are provided in the content seen by HKFP, although plenty of hypotheticals are presented. In one, Chen gives students an imagined instance of someone promoting Hong Kong independence in the United Kingdom, concluding that the person would also be subject to the national security law.  

This lack of actual examples was called out by one HKU junior medicine student.

“In my opinion, this course fails to contextualise real-life scenarios… which roots its ambiguity,” he told HKFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

He said Chen “gave a thorough interpretation of the provisions and explanation of the legal elements,” but did not clarify the position of law enforcement and the prosecution principles of national security law.

“The course provides a broad perspective of a legal scholar but probably fails to address the burning question of most citizens on the NSL; what is the red line?” 

A screenshot of the transcript of the lecture in which Albert Chen says the “riots” of 2019 prompted the Chinese central government to rethink its policy on Hong Kong. Photo: Supplied.

A senior law student, who asked to remain anonymous, also mentioned the lack of discussion of real-life cases. “The examples used by Professor Chen are confusing. The NSL does not have a retroactive period, but Chen is referencing something that happened in 2019 or 2020 when there was no NSL. He also mentioned Tong’s case, but for me, it’s just like reading the news. It would be better if he could explain more about what kind of behaviour or wording threatened national security.” 

However, the course was “not as brainwashing” as she thought it would be, she added, noting that Chen did not put much emotion or opinion into teaching the course.

Instead, she said he was “just saying what the government officials say.”  

‘It’s not difficult’

As for the end-of-course test, neither of the students HKFP spoke to seemed too daunted by the task. “No value judgement and opinion expression are required,” the medical student said, adding that since students were allowed to access course materials while they sat the assessment, “it’s not difficult to pick the correct answer by directly referencing the original law text and lecture PowerPoint.” 

In the multiple-choice test, students are asked to identify security law violations. One question describes a group of protesters with a political agenda disrupting the operations of the MTR and throwing petrol bombs. The theoretical scenario bears echoes of a general strike in August 2019, when some protesters paralysed public transport

Students are asked to determine whether the following statement is true or false: “Unless detailed planning to cause terror in the community can be proved, such behaviour will not give rise to a charge of terrorism under the National Security Law.” 

The answer is: false.

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Dawna Fung

Dawna Fung was born and raised in Hong Kong. She is currently a freelance journalist and writer. She is majoring in Journalism and Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong.