Hong Kong: The National Security Law’s “creeping impact” on the education sector

This statement was originally published in Freedom House’s China Media Bulletin 148.

The impact of Hong Kong’s National Security Law on academic freedom and freedom of speech in schools and universities continues to be felt across the Special Administrative Region. The law’s adoption has prompted concern among local academics that they may be passed over for tenure or have contracts terminated, that students may report them to authorities for the content of their lectures, and that formerly safe research topics or partnerships with foreign think tanks critical of the Chinese government will be off-limits or dangerous. The law’s effect has also harmed Hong Kong’s universities’ position as an attractive hub for international academic exchange in Asia, with scholars, professors, and students from other countries declining opportunities they might have previously pursued. Farther afield, instructors of Chinese studies in the United States and the United Kingdom have felt compelled to adopt precautions to ensure the safety of students studying remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Numerous incidents over the past month highlight the creeping effect the new National Security Law is having at all levels of the education sector:

  • In late September, the Education Bureau stripped a primary school teacher of his teaching credentials for life in response to the teacher allegedly spreading “proindependence messages” – although the lesson in question occurred more than a year ago, in March 2019.
  • On October 6, Hong Kong’s secretary for education, Kevin Yeung, warned teachers that any discussion of Hong Kong independence at elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools was strictly off-limits.
  • On October 10, the University of Hong Kong tore down and barricaded a campus area previously used as a student-run Lennon Wall, over the objections of the student union. The area had previously been used to display prodemocracy and antigovernment slogans and posters.
  • In an open letter released in October, more than 100 academics from 16 countries warned that the National Security Law’s claim of extraterritorial jurisdiction could impact global academic freedom. The letter said that the law could serve as the basis of imprisonment for scholars and students traveling through Hong Kong or China, over academic work considered subversive by Chinese authorities. Signatories called for a united and coordinated effort from universities and government officials to address the challenge.
  • On October 13, former chief executive CY Leung published on his Facebook page a list of 18 teachers prosecuted for protest-related offenses. Leung – who is now a vice president of the mainland Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – claimed that the list, which included the teachers’ ages and the schools where they worked, was a part of his efforts to report protesters’ alleged criminal activity. The city’s largest teachers’ association and an education-sector lawmaker criticized the move as improper and as an attempt to incite hatred.
  • Students and alumni of the University of Hong Kong raised concerns about the October 27 decision of the university’s governing council to appoint two mainland Chinese professors as vice presidents of research and academic development, respectively. One had previously been listed on the website of Tsinghua University as a member of the Communist Party, although he claimed this was incorrect. The move came after several academics at the university, considered Hong Kong’s most prestigious, lost their positions – including prodemocracy professor Benny Tai who was fired in July even though he had been tenured, and his department and the university senate had objected to the move.

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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