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Academic Freedom on The Wane in Hong Kong, One Year After Security Law

By Lau Siu Fung and Cheng Yut Yiu 2021-07-12 -- One year after the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, academic freedom is on the wane, students and faculty told RFA in recent interviews.

Staff on the University of Hong Kong (HKU) campus tore down posters and messages left on the university's "democracy walls," student publications Campus TV and Undergrad reported on Sunday.

Photos posted to social media showed posters bearing the words "Resist, Hongkongers!" and "never forgive the Hong Kong police," being ripped from walls.

According to Campus TV, Dean of student affairs Sampson Tse was present during the operation, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

From the national security law's implementation on July 1, 2020 to the end of the year, the city's education bureau said it received more than 260 malpractice complaints against faculty members in Hong Kong's universities.

Many of the complaints were linked to accusations of fomenting social unrest, and more than 160 complaints were substantiated, leading to three teachers being struck off, with letters of reprimand and written warnings issued to the others, the bureau said.

Many complaints against teaching staff at all levels of education are made anonymously, on the grounds that the teacher's behavior in some way "endangered national security" under the law, which criminalizes public comments that are critical of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.

Chief executive Carrie Lam recently also called on parents, school principals, teachers, and pastors to "carefully observe" the behavior of the young people around them and to report any "illegal actions."

Yip Kin-yuen, convenor of the HKU Alumni Concern Group, said the current emphasis on informing against academic staff is highly divisive.

"There are many other ways [to change behavior], including providing training and assistance, referral services, or bringing in experts to help," Yip told RFA. "If a teacher can be reported at any time, this will cause a great deal of mistrust between teachers and students."

His comments came amid a row at the HKU over a now-withdrawn statement by student leaders in which they expressed mourning at the suicide of a protester on the anniversary of the July 1 handover after he stabbed a police officer outside the Sogo department store.

Hong Kong police commissioner Raymond Siu said any words of support for acts considered terrorism by the government would in themselves break the national security law.

"Prosecutions will be laid if there is any evidence, and we will seek advice from the Department of Justice if needed," Siu said.

Ties with student unions cut

Arthur Li, chair of the HKU governing board has also said he would welcome a national security probe into the student union council, and the university would see whether the council members should be expelled, local media reported.

Four members of the HKU student union council -- which has apologized for the motion -- have resigned amid the row.

Staff at HKU had yet to respond to a request for information on the resigned student union council members at the time of broadcast on July 9.

Two Hong Kong universities have already cut ties with their student unions, with the HKU accusing the students' union of becoming "a platform for political propaganda" following its involvement in recent protest movements.

The union had strongly opposed the appointment of two mainland Chinese scholars as vice presidents, saying that they would help to assert CCP control over the city's oldest university.

The university has stopped collecting membership fees on behalf of HKUSU and is reclaiming facilities once used by the student body.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) severed ties with its student union Syzygia on Feb. 26, banning the union from using university facilities or staff and accusing it of failing to clarify "potentially unlawful statements and false allegations."

Politicians, activists targeted

A draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020 has targeted dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists for "subversion" after they organized a primary election in a bid to win more seats in the city's legislature.

The law bans words and deeds deemed subversive or secessionist, or any activities linked to overseas groups, as "collusion with foreign powers," including public criticism of the Hong Kong government and the CCP.

Former Syzygia president Issac Lam said it was unprecedented for a university leader like Arthur Li to welcome a national security investigation into the activities of students.

"I would describe it as horrifying," Lam said. "This means I can be threatened by high-level university leaders just for caring about current affairs and for expressing my opinions?"

"I think the whole thing is unbelievable," he said. "The freedom of expression we once enjoyed at university and in academic circles is no more."

He said the calls for investigation will likely escalate on Hong Kong's higher education campuses.

"It's clear that this is going to become a major theme of life in Hong Kong under the current regime," Lam said. "Professors will get reported, and maybe we'll have surveillance cameras in primary and secondary schools to monitor the actions of teachers and students alike?"

A prominent pro-democracy group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said over the weekend it was letting go all staff, after the authorities banned its annual candlelight vigil for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre for two years running.

The move was in response to the "deteriorating political situation," the group said.

Group spokesman Leung Kam-wai said the remaining members wouldn't give up its work, however.

"The Alliance has been evaluating the political situation," Leung said. "We can only take it one step at a time, because we can't predict how the red lines will shift."

"All we can do is to stand firm and carry on mourning June 4, 1989," Leung told RFA.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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