Security Law Brings New Risks to Education in Hong Kong and Abroad

Hong Kong’s academic freedom and university autonomy have been steady targets for the CCP since at least the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, when several prominent Hong Kong professors were jailed for participating. In recent years, documented pressure on outspoken and politically active scholars met quick resistance from professors and students, who form an integral part of the city’s once active pro-democracy movement. The July 1 implementation of the National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong has expedited Beijing’s long-running crackdown on the region’s freedom of expression and political autonomy, and public schools in the city have since been given new teaching guidelines as curriculum reviews are underway. Much as the city’s independent media outlets are already feeling the direct impact of the law and the chilling effect of its opacity, The Economist reports that its universities are as well:

That opacity “is a feature not a bug”, reckons [NYU law professor] Mr [Alvin] Cheung. The idea is to scare academics into self-censorship. “The message from the government is that academics have nothing to worry about if you are law-abiding,” says Eva Pils, a professor at King’s College London and a prominent activist for human rights in China. “But at the back of your mind you ask yourself if you are safe. You are never told where the red lines are. In fact there are no red lines.”

That is already having a stifling effect. One history professor told The Economist that his colleagues have decided to stop teaching classes on China. He himself is nervous even about addressing topics such as the American revolution, in case class discussions alight on the touchy subject of democracy.

The danger to professors takes several forms. The first is from being denounced, whether by colleagues or students themselves. A lecturer from Hong Kong University says he has always been aware that mainland students have been recruited to report back about who is saying what within his lecture theatre. But, he says, the practice seems to be spreading. One of his Cantonese-speaking local students recently took him aside to warn that he had been approached by the Hong Kong Liaison Office—the mainland’s representative office in the territory—to report on class discussions.

That situation may worsen with time, thinks Johnny Patterson of Hong Kong Watch. The Hong Kong government has recently pushed for a more “patriotic” approach within school classrooms. Books deemed critical of China (eg, by authors such as Joshua Wong, a pro-democracy legislator) have been removed from public libraries. Schools have been told to follow suit, and stamp out pro-democracy or anti-China sentiment. Liberal-studies classes, intended to promote independent thinking, are also in the firing line. “Once [pupils] are indoctrinated in schools, what will happen in a decade or so?” wonders Mr Patterson. “Will it lead to a culture of reporting wrong-think?”

Another danger is that what academics may research will be policed. […] [Source]

At the Hong Kong Free Press, Rachel Wong reported on concerns voiced locally and abroad last week over the censorship and revision of textbook content covering the modern history of local protest, politics, and the passing of the NSL:

The Progressive Teachers’ Alliance, Hong Kong Educators Alliance, Hongkongers Support and Breakthrough drafted an open letter to Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung, urging him to halt the alleged political censorship and removal of content in Liberal Studies textbooks. The groups also requested that the Education Bureau disclose details of the newly set-up “professional consultancy service,” which reviews the textbooks.

[…] The open letter accused the authorities of obliterating the content in order to hinder students from independent thinking and stifle free thought: “Topics about the separation of powers are removed in several textbooks. Content about the ideology of civil disobedience, as well as the limits the government imposes to freedom of assembly were largely erased. It reflected that the bureau’s claim of ‘enhancing the quality of textbook’ was merely an excuse for political censorship. They are turning the textbooks into the authorities’ mouthpiece.”

[…] Meanwhile in a statement released on Thursday, the UK-based NGO Hong Kong Watch slammed the removal of textbook content related to the Tiananmen Massacre. [Source]

At the South China Morning Post, Chan Ho-him reported further on the petitioners’ complaints about the new textbook vetting process and the Education Bureau’s opacity, and notes support for the process expressed by mainland media:

Liberal studies, a compulsory subject for senior secondary pupils, was introduced in 2009 to encourage critical thinking and raise awareness of contemporary issues. But it has come under fire in recent years from pro-establishment figures who have deemed some teaching materials biased and blamed it for “radicalising” young people.

The changes, first revealed by the publishers on Monday [8/17], included the removal of the phrase “separation of powers” as well as multiple political cartoons, while criticisms towards the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments had been toned down.

[…] Responding to accusations of censorship, education officials on Wednesday defended the changes as “sieving out the inaccurate parts from the rest” and helping students develop positive values, an argument that failed to convince many pupils and teachers. […] [Source]

While some in Hong Kong have dismissed fears over the NSL’s impact on academic freedom as “alarmist,” much evidence has accumulated this year to fuel concern. Earlier this month, a petition signed by nearly 4,000 academics, students, and residents called for the reversal of the recent firings of University of Hong Kong legal scholar Benny Tai and Baptist University lecturer Shiu Ka-chun, who were sacked in connection with their involvement in the 2014 protest movement after earlier being sentenced. Former Chinese University of Hong Kong professor and Occupy Central co-founder Chan Kin-man, who served 11 months of a 16-month sentence for his role, said on his release in March that he had “no regrets, because that’s the price one has to pay for democracy.”

Not only Hong Kong citizens are being affected by the turbulence in the city’s educational system. Earlier this month at the Sydney Morning Herald, Eryk Bagsworth reported on the resignation of the principal of an Australian international school catering to the children of Hong Kong-based legal, diplomatic, and business professionals. While the resigned administrator cited COVID-19 travel complications as the reason for his resignation, concerns over the NSL were amply noted in the Hong Kong-based international education community:

“I have loved my time at [the school] and was hoping to continue in the role for many years to come,” [Mark Hemphill] wrote in a letter to parents.

The school is also advertising for replacements for heads of science, maths and learning support, along with primary and kindergarten teachers. It did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

[…] “National security, privacy and other laws are increasingly impacting on the governance and operational actions of schools.”

[…] Teachers at international schools in Hong Kong, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about their employment, said school administrations have been terrified of upsetting the Hong Kong government and Beijing.

“The terror is very real and so speech is well and truly censored,” said one. “Our international curriculum will come under attack in the next year.” [Source]

In the West, concerns have been steadily growing for years over the political and academic risks of universities’ increasing reliance on Chinese international student tuition and direct investment from Beijing. At The Wall Street Journal, Lucy Craymer reported earlier this month on new dangers now facing elite U.S. universities, academic faculty, and the scores of international students from Hong Kong and China gearing up to begin classes this month either online or in-person:

The issue has become particularly pressing because at least the first semester at many universities will be taught online, meaning some students from China and Hong Kong will connect with their U.S. classmates via video links. Some academics fear the classes could be recorded and ultimately end up in the hands of Chinese authorities.

[…] “We cannot self-censor,” said Rory Truex, an assistant professor who teaches Chinese politics at Princeton. “If we, as a Chinese teaching community, out of fear stop teaching things like Tiananmen or Xinjiang or whatever sensitive topic the Chinese government doesn’t want us talking about, if we cave, then we’ve lost.”

[…] Meg Rithmire, who teaches political science at Harvard Business School, plans similar measures [to Truex’ on offering students political warnings and blind grading at the class launch] on a compulsory first-year course for roughly 800 students seeking a master’s degree in business administration. One of the case studies discussed requires students to read diaries from Uighur Muslims held in camps in China’s Xinjiang region—where Beijing is accused of large-scale human-rights abuses—and also covers Hong Kong, Taiwan and the legitimacy of the Communist party.

[…] Avery Goldstein, a professor in the political science department at the University of Pennsylvania, said as soon as students enroll for his course online he plans to send out the syllabus and flag that it may contain sensitive information. A security breach of his online classes could now compromise students’ safety, he said—or his own, if he were to travel to China.

[…] “It’s a moving target,” said Dr. Ratigan [political science professor at Amherst College], who fears increased risks for students who are Chinese citizens or have close family in China. [Source]

See also ChinaFile’s “How to Teach China This Fall,” a compilation of leading experts’ advice in light of the pandemic and the new security legislation, and an interview with Professor Sheena Greitens by William Yang on Medium.

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