In-depth report says academic freedom in Hong Kong under threat

Hong Kong Watch today releases an in-depth study into academic freedom in Hong Kong, one day ahead of a debate on democracy in Hong Kong in the UK House of Commons led by Fiona Bruce MP, Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and two days before Lord Ashdown, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats, raises an oral question on human rights in Hong Kong in the House of Lords. The report concludes that although academic freedom is ‘alive and generally well’ in Hong Kong, it is under threat due to the politicization of universities following the 2014 Occupy protests.

  Benny Tai, Image: VOA

Benny Tai, Image: VOA

The report highlights that a ‘growing top-down backlash [after the Occupy Movement] has attempted to limit academic freedom’, and that this is seen through three key trends: controversial academic figures have been removed from their posts, seen promotions blocked, or like Benny Tai are facing extra-legal campaigns to pressure their removal; State-appointed and politically-connected figures are governing universities in a manner divorced from the will of students and faculty; and there is a growing push to limit freedom of speech without any legal basis.

The report was written by Dr Kevin Carrico, an expert on China and Hong Kong who lectures at Macquarie University in Australia. He notes that the reputation of Hong Kong’s universities will suffer if these trends continue:

‘These trends suggest that elements of academic control in place elsewhere in China are gradually being incorporated into the Hong Kong system, threatening the city’s academic freedom and thus its universities’ reputations.’

The report contains multiple policy recommendations including: a call for local academic freedom monitoring groups to raise awareness of infringements of academic freedom; an encouragement that educators should openly confront ‘taboo’ topics in Hong Kong; and a call for the UK governments and other governments to speak out.

A key policy recommendation is that ‘the Chief Executive’s role as chancellor to all of the city’s universities should be abolished, returning control to the universities.’ The report states that this is problematic because it politicises the position:

‘The post-1997 arrangement can present challenges: Chief Executives are chosen by and thus primarily accountable to the Chinese government, far from a neutral party on matters of academic freedom. The two most recent Chief Executives have made comments that demonstrate insufficient dedication and even hostility to the academic freedom and freedom of speech central to academic inquiry in Hong Kong.’ 

On publication of the report, Benedict Rogers, Chairman of Trustees at Hong Kong Watch said:

‘We are delighted to release this comprehensive account of violations of academic freedom since 2015. Academic freedom is a right enshrined in Basic Law, and Hong Kong has some of the finest universities in the world. Their reputation depends on their independence, and we are concerned that this independence appears under threat. While academic freedom still exists in Hong Kong, we are concerned by the direction of travel and will watch to ensure that the rights enshrined in Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration are upheld.’  

The report follows the publication of Lord Ashdown’s report on human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong which has caused controversy after the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, denounced the report as ‘foreign meddling’. In response Lord Ashdown and Lord Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, both said Ms Lam’s comments were an ‘overreaction’. Lord Patten said that Carrie Lam’s statement was “a rather unwise, over the top response which does not actually recognise the obligations on Britain or the obligations on China under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

Read the report here

Note: If you have experienced an issue with academic freedom in Hong Kong that you would like to share confidentially for a follow-up report, please email Kevin at academicfreedominhk@gmail.com