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Hong Kong universities stifle free speech

Rights activists say unjustified self-censorship is preventing academics and students from speaking about independence.

 
Freedom of speech is under attack in Hong Kong as universities discourage criticism of mainland China in a trend that worries rights activists. (Photo by Redd Angelo/unsplash.com)
Hong Kong: 

University administrations in Hong Kong are continuing to crack down on free expression over perceived fears of breaking political taboos despite the lack of any legal basis to do so, according to a recent report from rights watchdog Hong Kong Watch.

The report, titled "Academic Freedom in Hong Kong," highlights the efforts of universities in the semi-autonomous region to either remove or pressure controversial academic figures and threaten students over free speech, particularly comments critical of China.

"Clearly universities feel driven to put pressure on people advocating independence under the false pretext that freedom of speech and inquiry have their limits," Kevin Carrico, the author of the report, told ucanews.com.

Carrico is a Hong Kong and China expert who lectures at Australia's Macquarie University.

Crackdowns on campus speech began in 2015 and have escalated, mostly as a response to the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement for universal suffrage that ultimately ended in failure.

Administrations are responding particularly harshly to any speech that may be perceived as supporting Hong Kong's independence from China.

The heads of 10 universities published a joint statement in September 2017 condemning the restrictions on free speech on campus and calling it unconstitutional, citing universities' efforts to remove pro-independence banners put up by students.

"It's very concerning that university administrators seem to be going out of their way to engage in self-censorship rather than pushing back attempts to limit the scope of freedom of expression on campus," said William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International.

Free speech in Hong Kong is enshrined in the Basic Law, the territory's constitution. Pro-Beijing politicians like Chief Executive Carrie Lam argue that because Article 1 of the Basic Law declares that Hong Kong is part of China, this speech must be limited.

High-level university administrators, along with Carrico in his report, point out the legal flaws in this thinking: that freedom of speech plainly allows an individual to hold discussions that are beyond today's legal framework.

There is nothing in the Basic Law that prohibits free speech. While Article 23 is a national security law that limits subversion, it has not been legislated.

The prestigious University of Hong Kong (HKU) has been particularly embattled over its eroding academic independence since it blocked the nomination of Johannes Chan, a popular democracy advocate, to be pro-vice-chancellor in 2015.

Vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson resigned unusually early last year, citing personal reasons. There was speculation the reason was political and that he had been sidelined.

Mathieson signed an anti-Hong Kong independence statement last September that condemned what he called "abuses" of free speech on campus.

Zhang Xiang, the university's incoming vice-chancellor, recently made controversial comments that "everything has to be said in the context of the boundaries."

Carrico said Zhang's statements about freedom of speech "have not been encouraging … any limit on freedom of speech or inquiry sets a dangerous precedent."

Zhang is a renowned Nanjing-born scientist. He told reporters that he has only been to the university twice and that he is mostly unfamiliar with its political situation.

"One huge concern is that in mainland China the range of sensitive topics is essentially endless, and if universities are unwilling to push back on censoring discussion about things like Hong Kong independence, which is admittedly very controversial, then it's hard to say which issues will next be seen as abuses of freedom of expression," said Nee.

In mainland China, universities are at the mercy of strict censorship and the Communist Party's iron grip on the freedom of information. There is no tolerance of criticism of the regime or research that may disrupt society's so-called social harmony.

Zhang said he wants to establish the HKU-led Greater Bay Area National Laboratory, which would connect the University of Hong Kong to major universities in mainland China.

The Greater Bay Area will host a long-term economic project integrating Hong Kong with major cities in neighboring Guangdong province such as Guangdong, Shenzhen and Zhuhai.

The soon-to-open Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is an example of one of the many major infrastructure projects that will integrate Hong Kong into the southern Chinese region.

Carrico fears Hong Kong may soon lose its strategic position as a hub to research both the territory and mainland China without fear of repercussions from the government or censorship.

"Today it's independence, tomorrow it's self-determination, and by this logic the taboos continually expand," said Carrico. "Give this regime an inch and they will take a mile."

Source: UCAN

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