By Elaine Dunn
Students and alumni groups view their appointment as “take-over” of the university by the CCP. Media forensics conducted by the former HKU director of Journalism and Media Studies Center found cached web pages indicating one of them was elected in 2014 and 2017 as a CCP committee member, even though his party affiliation is no longer listed on current live pages. Student sit-in protest calling for reconsideration was in vain.
A current HKU student who is also a district councilor, took to Twitter on Oct. 27:
4/ And now, they are appointing professors with strong affiliation to the authoritarian regime of CCP to takeover research and academic development of our University. This shall signal the end of academic freedom and institutional autonomy at HKU.
HKU’s Alumni Association further views the appointment of the two men by the current vice-chancellor as “cronyism” as the three had, at one point, all worked at UC-Berkeley within the same time period and got to know each other.
Since 2018, institutes of higher learning in mainland China have been under pressure to pledge loyalty to the CCP, even if it meant having to change their charters to accommodate CCP members on their boards and administrations.
Not only are universities being “infiltrated,” they also are “shedding” faculty members who do not fall in line with Beijing’s school of thought.
In July 2020, Benny Tai, a pro-democracy activist, was fired by HKU’s governing council for participating in the 2014 protests.
China’s liaison office said Tai’s removal was a “purification” of the academic atmosphere at the university and the governing council’s decision “complies with popular sentiment,” the Hong Kong Free Press reported.
A London-based political history lecturer tweeted on July 29:
The process towards his firing has been underway for some time, and it is a reminder that academic freedoms have been under threat well before the national security law. Now, however, the attacks on academia are on full display, as seen by the LO statement last night.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers condemned the dismissal as well. Its executive director issued a statement that said, “The firing of Professor Tai is another signal that academic freedom and civil liberties are under threat from the Chinese government. It sends a clear and chilling message not only to academics in Hong Kong, but to all of those pressing for democratic reforms and respect for human rights.”
A group consisting of 100 academics from Australia, Germany, UK and U.S. called for a “united international front” to defend university freedom. “Individual universities will be picked off unless there is a common agreement to resist Chinese state interference in academic research and teaching on ,” it said.
HKU is not the only university to have dismissed pro-democracy academics. An assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong mentioned two other professors who were similarly dismissed also in July 2020 from the Hong Kong Baptist University and Lingnan University. Others had been dismissed or contracts not renewed earlier.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) talked with some pro-democracy academics and most felt they have been sidelined or dismissed because of their political beliefs. They also fear university (in the form of grants distributed by a government-appointed committee) may suffer from political manipulation.
The dismissals are seen as a result of the new national security law that went into effect July 1, 2020. It’s Beijing’s way to exert control over Hong Kong and its pro-democracy activists.
Academic freedom is the cornerstone of higher education. Universities should be safe places for open discussion of ideas, no matter how contentious it may get. Under article 38 of the national security law, which is global in scope and application, exchange of ideas, especially those concerning or critical of China, are no longer possible as fear of “over-stepping the line” leads to self-censorship.
Other recent anecdotes: A lecturer at the University of Leipzig told a Hong Kong activist that his students from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan had asked to drop his political science course because they were afraid of criticisms of the Communist Party by fellow students in the class may cause them problems. Individual Chinese professors at Oxford University said they plan to anonymize some students’ papers in group settings to shield individual students from reprisals for discussing flaws of the Chinese system.
So, as Beijing turns its screws, university students the world over will pay the price.