Hong Kong (CNN)In the heart of the leafy, mountain-top campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong stands a replica of a giant statue erected by protesting students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, before a bloody crackdown by Chinese troops.
A monument to freedom, the “Goddess of Democracy” has long been a symbol of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and a testament to the freedoms the semi-autonomous city has enjoyed compared to the rest of China.
During anti-government, pro-democracy protests last year, when CUHK itself became a key battleground between demonstrators and police, the statue was topped with a yellow helmet similar to those worn by protesters, and bedecked with a placard reading “Hong Kongers, resist.”
It was largely students, both university and high school, who led those protests, clashing with police in increasingly violent confrontations, occupying campuses, and getting arrested in large numbers.
They had been expected to protest again this year. But with coronavirus halting the opportunity for public assembly, Beijing imposed a new national security law on the city in June, before the unrest could resume. The law, which bypassed Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature, bans subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces, with severe prison terms for anyone found in contravention.
From when the legislation was first mooted, the government has always insisted it will only target a handful of individuals and not have a widespread impact on Hong Kong’s political freedoms.
However, since it came into force on June 30, some 24 arrests have been made, including four student activists over social media posts. It has been used to bar multiple candidates from standing for election, political parties have disbanded and once ubiquitous protest signs were pulled down across the city. Books deemed to be in contravention of the law have also been removed from stores and libraries.
Hong Kong has some of the best universities in Asia. But in a growing climate of fear and self censorship, it is now unclear what can legally be said and taught in a classroom — and whether student activism, both on campus and off, may become a thing of the past.
As university lecturers in the social sciences across Hong Kong prepared for the fall term, writing lesson plans, sending out book lists, and testing Zoom setups, they also engaged in a furtive attempt to understand if their teaching might be deemed illegal.
Since it was proposed by Beijing, observers have warned that the vague language and sweeping nature of the security law gives the authorities broad scope to crack down on a variety of behaviors, while offering little guidance to those affected on how to stay the right side of it.
Schools have already been ordered by the government to remove books that contain content “which is outdated or involves the four crimes under the law,” and works by several prominent pro-democracy activists, including former student activist Joshua Wong, have been removed from public libraries.
One lecturer at CUHK described how faculty members pressed university administrators in emails, encrypted messages and in hastily convened staff meetings for reassurances or guidance, with little success.
“The general consensus is we know too little and the wording of the legislation is too vague for us to prepare for it,” said the lecturer, who spoke anonymously as they had not received permission from the school to do so. “So, it is essentially up to individuals to decide whether they want to be brave and ignore the whole thing, or self-censor.”
This creates a nerve-wracking situation for staff, who are unsure not only what might get them in trouble, but also whether the university will stand by them in future. In June, Hong Kong University (HKU) fired Benny Tai, a respected law professor who was instrumental in organizing what became the 2014 Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests.
Tai’s sacking was a “clear breach of procedure, since a committee overwhelmingly made up of political appointees reversed a recommendation made by an academic body (the University Senate) not to terminate Tai’s appointment,” said Sebastian Veg, a China specialist at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, who was previously based in Hong Kong for several years.
“There is a new red line for academics who are also active in local politics or social movements,” he added. “But it’s too early to say whether that red line will further expand into teaching and research itself.”
The Beijing-appointed chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, oversees all public universities in the city, and most institutions have strong links with China, relying on the mainland for students and funding. CUHK, for example, operates the Shenzhen Research Institute, across the border in China, and Chinese students make up the largest non-local cohort in the school’s 20,000-strong student body.
CUHK did not respond to a request for comment about the law or any action taken because of it. The government has denied that the law threatens academic freedom.
In 2017, mainland Chinese students clashed with some local students over a series of pro-Hong Kong independence posters erected on the CUHK campus, which were eventually removed by the school. Following the incident, the heads of 10 universities in Hong Kong published a joint statement condemning “abuses” of free speech and calling Hong Kong independence “unconstitutional.”
Long before it was officially criminalized by the new security law, independence advocacy has been a contentious issue on campuses.
In 2015, then Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung used his annual address to attack a student magazine, Undergrad, for writing about independence, bringing the topic, then still fairly marginal, to wider public attention.
The CUHK lecturer said there was concern about the effect of the security law on the school’s journalism department. Many student reporters covered the protests last year — how to even report on separatism or other newly illegal activities in the wake of the new law is something that far more experienced journalists are still trying to work out.
It is unclear, for example, where the line is between reporting on the independence movement and “promoting” it, either by giving activists airtime or even by simply quoting separatist slogans. Discussing such subjects in lessons could also be risky. In a statement on books that could potentially contravene the security law, the Education Bureau said that teaching materials discussing the new crimes should not be used “unless they are being used to positively teach pupils about their national security awareness or sense of safeguarding national security.”
Keith Richburg, director of Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center (JMSC), said in a note to students last month that “the specifics of the new law are vague, and that vagueness is deliberate.”
“By not spelling out precisely what actions or words count as secession or subversion — by not clearly delineating Beijing’s ‘red lines’ — it gives the authorities the power and leeway to apply the law as they see fit, while forcing everyone into a defensive mode of timidity and self-censorship to avoid possible transgressions.
“That includes journalists, academics and others in the public space,” Richburg wrote, adding that “we do not intend to do anything differently at JMSC, as we adhere to our mission of training the next generation of reporters and imbuing them with journalism’s international best practices.”
The oldest tertiary education institution in the city, HKU is one of the top-ranked schools in Asia according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and international students make up over 40% of enrollments. The top two schools in Asia, however, are both in China, suggesting that academic freedom may not ultimately shape what counts toward such rankings.
But it could drastically alter the nature of the institution.
Sun Yat-sen, the politician and philosopher considered the father of modern China, called the school his “intellectual birthplace,” and HKU has a strong tradition of turning out independent thinkers and activists.
Responding to a request for comment about the new security law, an HKU spokeswoman said that “we will continue to uphold academic freedom and the freedom of thought and speech,” and linked to the school’s policy on academic freedom.
Some HKU students are less than reassured.
Tracy Cheng, vice president of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union (HKUSU), said that many people were alarmed by the firing of Tai and angered that during anti-government unrest last year HKU vice chancellor Xiang Zhang appeared to downplay allegations of police brutality and focus instead on violence by protesters.
“This upset and disappointed a lot of students, as we thought that HKU would stand alongside students,” she said. “The union and other associations has organized forums to express our concerns over academic freedom and freedom of speech to the university. We will look closely when the academic year starts, to see if there is any censorship in classrooms, especially for socio-political courses.”
HKUSU was one of the founding members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), an umbrella organization which included unions from the city’s largest universities. In 2014, HKFS was one of the main groups leading the Umbrella protests, and members even debated city officials on live television.
“The involvement of students (in the protests) was important,” said Lester Shum, onetime deputy secretary-general of HKFS and now an elected lawmaker. “At that time, not so many people were getting involved in politics, but when the students came out and said we are fighting for our freedom and our future, many people felt touched and were inspired to join.”
Shum said that while last year’s protests were not as dependent on student groups for their organization as the 2014 Umbrella Movement, for example, they were still largely led by young people.
“This generated (great attention) on both the local and international level because when some protesters are so young, maybe 15 to 18, and go to the front lines to face the threat of tear gas and rubber bullets, that is an important moral force,” he said.
The uncertainty created by the new law, across a host of fields and industries, has been described as a “feature not a bug” by some critics, who argue that by not clearly demarcating red lines, the government encourages greater self-censorship in academia, media and politics.
The extraterritorial nature of the security law, which purports to apply to anyone in the world, regardless of whether alleged offenses are committed in Hong Kong, has sparked alarm far beyond the city itself. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that a number of US universities are adding warnings to courses that “may cover material considered politically sensitive by China.”
Some schools will adopt code names for participants in certain classes, the WSJ said, so that Chinese and Hong Kong students, thousands of whom study at US institutions, can take part without concern that they might face repercussions at home.
For some students, at universities in both Hong Kong and the United States, the coronavirus pandemic adds another wrinkle to this issue: many are taking part in their courses via video link from their homes in China. This puts them at greater risk of surveillance, and students may be less willing to participate in politically sensitive discussions while under Chinese jurisdiction.
The CUHK professor said their “number one concern” was how to cater to Chinese students who have been unable to return to the city due to the pandemic.
“We will have to start our semester online,” they said. “How are we going to discuss sensitive topics with them?”