How Academic Freedom Ends

Beijing is using dismissals, arrests, and a repressive new law to curtail students’ and professors’ rights.

Two men wearing surgical masks walk behind a barbed-wire fence.
Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Last month, a group of University of Hong Kong academics gathered on the third floor of the campus’s Jockey Club Tower for a highly anticipated town hall. Nearly a year had passed since Beijing imposed a new security law on Hong Kong, arresting dozens of people, reengineering the territory’s voting system, and seizing the assets of a publicly listed company linked to activists. Staff members at the prestigious university, the city’s oldest, were seeking reassurance about how this new reality would change the school, its research, and their jobs.

The takeaway, one of those in attendance told me, was that “help is not on the way.”

By the time of the meeting, the university had severed ties with its students’ union, issuing a scathing statement against the group that read like party-speak from Beijing; torn down colorful walls of protest art along a main thoroughfare; and instituted a heavy security presence on campus.

The May town hall offered its audience little to feel confident about, according to multiple people who attended the closed-door session. The two administrators who addressed the group admitted that they had been caught off guard by the speed and breadth of the crackdown across the city. The assembled faculty pressed them on whether HKU would provide legal assistance if they were arrested for allegedly violating the law while working, what to do if students reported professors on a government tip line, and what educators may be forced to teach. (The new rules require universities to “promote” national security.)

As the meeting drew to a close, some faculty members became emotional, recounting how they had dedicated their professional lives to the university only to now feel abandoned. “To say that people feel saddened or let down,” one professor who attended told me, “these are words that are far too small a representation of the depth of disappointment and really despair and fear in that room.”

Across Hong Kong’s universities, eight of which are publicly funded, worries are growing over the lengths authorities will go to in their breakneck campaign to root out opposition voices and instill mainland-China-style controls. According to 10 current and former faculty members and administrators at four universities—most of whom, like the HKU academics I spoke with, requested anonymity to avoid repercussions at work—concerns include academic freedom and self-censorship, staff retention and recruitment, and students’ well-being.

The leadership at these institutions, many of which are highly ranked internationally and enjoy relationships with universities abroad, has done little to support students or faculty, these educators said, even when its own organizations and staff were targeted by lawmakers and state media. Confusion and distress about what the future holds now dominates faculty-lounge conversations. “We all sit around talking about it, but we don’t have answers,” a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University told me. (Management at that university in February abruptly canceled a photo exhibition that included pictures from 2019’s protests, after being called out by state media. The university cited security and pandemic concerns as reasons for the cancellation.)

Five university heads last year signed a letter endorsing the national-security law, throwing their support behind the legislation before it was even made public. This move highlighted one of the more troubling aspects of the threats on campus, and within academia more broadly: The marching orders to suppress freedoms are being dutifully carried out not by police or the authorities, but by fellow colleagues, and even students. One postgraduate student at HKU has reported at least two faculty members to the tip line, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

“I think it is a very, very peculiar and an interesting thing, because it is not as if the body that is eroding academic freedom is outside the university. It is not a foreign body,” Peter Baehr, a research professor in social theory who has spent 21 years at Lingnan University, a liberal-arts college in Hong Kong, told me. Oftentimes, he said, “the most repressive actors are themselves professors.”

Universities were established in Hong Kong during British colonial rule “as part of a grand plan to extend Britain’s imperial influence in China and the Far East,” John P. Burns, an honorary professor of politics and public administration at HKU, wrote in a paper published last year examining higher education in the city. After Hong Kong was returned to China, in 1997, Beijing appeared to conceive of universities’ function, Burns wrote, primarily in terms of their “contribution to national development, their stabilizing role in Hong Kong and the mainland, and as institutions to transfer patriotic education to Hong Kong’s elite.” But the universities’ colonial legacy has led to tension with Beijing’s vision. (Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, serves as the chancellor of each of the eight publicly funded universities. The government also appoints members of each university’s council, a body similar to a board of trustees.)

While mainland officials and their loyalists in Hong Kong have long targeted the city’s education sector as an area for reform, aiming to create a more patriotic population less likely to push back on Beijing’s growing influence and interference, their previous efforts were met with fierce resistance from students and parents. Protests broke out in 2012 over proposals to bring more nationalist teaching into classrooms. The idea was eventually shelved, but not before giving rise to a number of student leaders, some of whom would spend the better part of a decade proving to be formidable dissidents before being jailed or driven into exile in recent months. Notable among them was Joshua Wong, who two years after rallying the education-reform protests would rise to global recognition as one of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement.

But in Hong Kong’s new political climate, resistance to Beijing is far more difficult. Wong is now in jail and facing charges under the national-security law. The overhaul of primary and secondary education he helped keep at bay is well under way, targeting students as young as 6 years old. Benny Tai, a legal scholar and former HKU professor targeted for years by Beijing, was sacked last year after being found guilty for his role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement demonstrations. Like Wong, he is now in jail and charged with violating the national-security law.

Even as recently as 2019, university campuses were hubs of resistance, hosting huge rallies, lectures, and classes on political protest. At times, they were also the scenes of violent confrontations with police; at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, clashes lasted for more than 10 days. Partly as a result of that activism, many pro-Beijing voices depict Hong Kong’s university students as radical, ungrateful, and difficult, in contrast with the stereotype of their more pliant, hardworking mainland counterparts. Jiang Shigong, a professor at Peking University Law School and a former adviser to the Chinese government’s office in Hong Kong, wrote last year in a state-backed magazine that students from the city live “trapped in the ‘imaginary world’ of their cosmopolitan metropolis,” detached from the “real world.” At the same time, he wrote, the city’s universities also host a “young generation of Mainlanders working hard, striving to study in the world's most prestigious universities, displaying the lively spirit of wanting to absorb the knowledge of the whole world.”

The intensity of the prodemocracy movement was particularly pronounced at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (Despite its name, the university is a publicly funded research institution founded by scholars who fled the mainland during the Chinese civil war.) As the most recent set of protests kicked off, CUHK students mockingly embraced being labeled rioters by authorities, dubbed the university “Rioters U,” and covered the campus with protest-related graffiti and artwork. Vice-chancellor Rocky Tuan garnered praise for holding an emotional meeting with students in October and issuing a statement urging police to investigate claims of misuse of force. His comments drew furious rebuttals from police unions and pro-Beijing media outlets. Months later, Tuan, who had joined CUHK from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, attempted to mediate between police and protesters when officers and demonstrators confronted each other near campus. Tuan himself was engulfed in a cloud of tear gas. In December 2019—after months of protests in Hong Kong—Times Higher Education, a British magazine, named him one of its people of the year for his efforts in “reaching out to students, calling for an end to violence.”

Tuan’s actions and remarks made it all the more jarring when he joined four other university heads last June to back the national-security law, signing a statement saying that they “understand the need for national security legislation.” An assistant professor at CUHK told me that Tuan’s decision and the release of the statement, which surprised the faculty, sent “a very clear signal downstream that there is no debate here; we truly don’t care.” (CUHK declined to comment for this story, as did Rashida Suffiad, a spokesperson for HKU.)

Three months later, CUHK withdrew recognition of its students’ union, saying that some of the political positions of the union’s newly elected representatives could violate the national-security law, but provided no details. Isaac Lam, a 21-year old politics major and the head of the union, told me he was stunned by the decision. Some faculty members had congratulated him and his team on their election victory just a day before the announcement. Lam told me that his request to meet with Tuan to discuss the matter had been rejected.

Lam said that signs of nervousness about certain sensitive political topics, such as Taiwan, were already apparent inside classrooms. In February, a student debate between two of the university’s colleges had to be reworked after one team objected to a question regarding protest tactics, fearing that it could violate the security law. (It was replaced with one about the struggle for independence in Catalonia.)

Such fears of violating the law, which carries a maximum punishment of life in jail, extend beyond students: The dean of CUHK’s social-sciences department sent an email to faculty this year about a lecture series on the legislation, but the email carried a peculiar disclaimer, which stated that the department “does not condone unlawful behaviours.” The message being sent, according to the assistant professor I spoke with, was “‘Hey, you can talk about national security, but not in a critical way.’” Faculty members I interviewed also said that it was unclear how their respective universities would handle the requirement that they promote the law. Many believed that hoping to get away with anything less than a class for credit was wishful thinking.

Taken together, these lingering questions and worries over the new restrictions will lead to a “dampening of academic exchange, academic discourse, academic research, and so that is just going to erode the quality and reputation of Hong Kong’s universities,” Robert Quinn, the executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, an advocacy group based at New York University, told me. But, he added, “Beijing doesn’t seem to care.”