A scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) specialising in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown has had her work visa rejected by the Hong Kong government. Her employment with CUHK was terminated immediately after the rejection, local media reported.

He Qing-lian, an associate professor at CUHK, is specialising in the 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown.  Photo: CUHK.
He Xiao-qing, a now-former associate professor at CUHK who specialised in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Photo: CUHK.

He Xiao-qing, an associate professor at CUHK, told Ming Pao on Sunday that the Immigration Department asked her to submit supplementary documents one month after she filed an application for a work visa extension. The request sought details of her previous work at Harvard University and the Institute for Advanced Study, as well as details of her research funding.

The professor – who was in the US on sabbatical leave – said she was informed by the Immigration Department last week that her application had been rejected. Last Friday, CUHK notified He that her employment was “terminated immediately.” However, her profile on the CUHK website was still active on Sunday, stating that the professor “is currently on leave.”

A spokesperson for the government said in a statement issued on Saturday that authorities “will not comment on individual cases,” and they handled each case according to different policies including whether the applicant has a “clear criminal record and raise[s] no security or criminal concerns to the HKSAR.” Applicant must also have “no likelihood of becoming a burden on the HKSAR.”

CUHK University
The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

In response, CUHK told local media that non-local residents must have a valid work visa in order to work in Hong Kong, and visas are handled by the Immigration Department.

The professor told InMedia that she had applied for a work visa in 2019, and had an extension granted in 2021. Both applications were smooth and successful. She felt she was “unable to do anything” about the decision.

According to an online profile, He was born in China and grew up as a member of the Tiananmen generation, and emigrated to Canada in 1998. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a PhD and published the book Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China in 2014. At CUHK, she received the Faculty of Arts Outstanding Teaching Award in 2020 and 2021.

cuhk goddess of democracy figure 3D printing June 4
A Tiananmen crackdown commemorative statue. File Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The Tiananmen crackdown occurred on June 4, 1989 ending months of student-led demonstrations in China. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, died when the People’s Liberation Army cracked down on protesters in Beijing.

Local commemorations

Over the 30 years following the crackdown, Hong Kong used to be the only place in China which commemorated the incident publicly and held vigils on June 4 every year in Causeway Bay’s Victoria Park. However, following the 2019 protests and unrest – and the enactment of the Beijing-imposed national security law – commemorations have ceased.

In 2020, Hong Kong police banned the annual vigil marking the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre for the first time in 30 years, citing coronavirus public gathering restrictions.

In addition, the vigil’s original organiser – the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China – was charged under the security law.

Veteran activist Grandma Wong is taken away by police in Causeway Bay on June 4, 2023, the 34th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Veteran activist Grandma Wong is taken away by police in Causeway Bay on June 4, 2023, the 34th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In 2023, after all Covid-related restrictions were lifted, Hong Kong top officials repeatedly avoided giving a clear answer as to whether commemorating the incident was illegal or not.

The anniversary of Tiananmen crackdown this year saw a heavy police presence in Causeway Bay and several people taken away by police. Six of the football pitches in the park were occupied with a patriotic carnival organised by pro-Beijing groups.

The professor, He, told Ming Pao that she cherished the freedom Hong Kong had always enjoyed and that she did not experience censorship while teaching at CUHK. She said her research was “loyal to history. “

Visa denied

Over the past few years, Hong Kong has denied visas to academics and reporters, or denied them entry at the boder.

American legal scholar Ryan Thoreson – specialising in LGBTQ rights – said in February 2022 that he had been denied a visa to teach at the University of Hong Kong, as concerns deepened about academic freedom in the city.

Immigration Department
Immigration Department. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

In 2021, Wong Sue-Lin, a correspondent with the Economist, was denied a visa renewal. The then-chief executive Carrie Lam – who said that she, herself, had been rejected for a US visa – refused to comment on what she called an individual case. However, she said assurances on visa matters for foreign journalists were “provided in the Basic Law.”

In 2020, New York Times journalist Chris Buckley was forced to leave the city after being denied a visa without reason amid a tit-for-tat dispute between Washington and Beijing.

Weeks later, Hong Kong Free Press was denied a work visa for an established journalist following an almost six-month wait. The Immigration Department’s rejection for HKFP’s incoming editor Aaron McNicholas was handed down without any official reason.

Correction 6 pm, 30/10/2023: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that He was born in the 1980s. We regret the error.

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Irene Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press and has an interest in covering political and social change. She previously worked at Initium Media as chief editor for Hong Kong news and was a community organiser at the Society for Community Organisation serving the underprivileged. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Fudan University and a master’s degree in social work from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Irene is the recipient of two Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) awards and three honourable mentions for her investigative, feature and video reporting. She also received a Human Rights Press Award for multimedia reporting and an honourable mention for feature writing.