Hong Kong sees fall in academic freedom amid ongoing crackdown

The 2020 National Security Law has put pressure on the city's universities, an annual report finds.
By Cheryl Tung for RFA Cantonese
2024.03.13
Hong Kong sees fall in academic freedom amid ongoing crackdown Student protesters sit outside a dormitory in City University in Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong, Nov. 12, 2019.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

Academic freedom in Hong Kong continues to fall in the wake of a draconian national security law imposed by Beijing in the summer of 2020, amid a shift away from the study of politically sensitive topics in higher education, according to a recent report.

"[The] National Security Law enacted in Beijing in the summer of 2020 has put unprecedented pressure on academic freedom in the special administrative region," the Academic Freedom Index report found, based on assessments for the whole of 2023.

Hong Kong now ranks in the bottom 20% of countries and territories for academic freedom -- it has its own index separate from the rest of China, which ranks in the bottom 10%, according to the report, which is produced annually by researchers at Germany's FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg University.

The city now scores 0.24 on a scale of 0-1 on the question "To what extent is academic freedom respected?" and 1.36 out of a possible 4 on the question "Is there academic freedom and freedom of cultural expression related to political issues?"

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Last year, its scores for "institutional autonomy" and "campus integrity" fell, indicating more political interference in decision-making and more security measures on campuses, the report found.

Curriculum changes

The falling scores came as authorities at Hong Kong's City University announced changes to the school's political studies major, including renaming of the Department of Public Policy, in what commentators said was a further sign of shrinking academic freedom amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the wake of the 2019 protests.

The university's Bachelor of Social Sciences in Public Policy and Politics will be renamed the Bachelor of Social Sciences in Public Affairs and Management from the start of the next academic year, according to the website of City U's Public and International Affairs department, formerly the Public Policy Department.

The move follows reports of the restructuring of the department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which will be merged with other departments and downgraded into a program, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.

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Primary school students practice for a flag-raising ceremony in Hong Kong, June 14, 2022. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

The ruling Chinese Communist Party announced last year that it would step up "patriotic education" in schools, universities and religious institutions across the country, including in Hong Kong, in a move likely designed to quash internal political challenges to Xi Jinping's authoritarian rule.

The City U course, which once offered a Humanities and Social Sciences stream, a Politics stream and a Public Management stream, will stop offering the Politics stream from next September, according to a comparison between the current website and a version of the site archived in March 2022.

"Seminars on Hong Kong Government and Politics" and "Labour and the State in China" are no longer on offer, with students offered new courses including "Rethinking the Value of Democracy" and "Introduction to Confucian Political Philosophy."

While the old major aimed to "equip students with the theoretical, conceptual, and analytical tools to understand comprehensively public policy, public management, and political developments in Hong Kong, China, and the contemporary global world," the new course focuses more on employability.

Steering clear of political past

The content of some of the curriculum also appears to steer well clear of Hong Kong's recent political past. Films about the 2019 protest movement or the political changes that followed are notably absent from its documentary-based class titled "Social Change and Governance Challenges: A Critical Appreciation through Film," for example.

As well as a university-mandated course on the National Security Law, the new major will address such questions as "How do particular public policies emerge?" and "Who makes the decisions and why?" according to the website.

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Lawmakers of the first Legislative Council since Beijing overhauled the election pose for group photos at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Jan. 3, 2022. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Currently, students are offered a course titled "Democracy and Democratization," which encourages them to consider "controversial questions like whether democracy is a universal value, whether it can promote human rights, whether there is an inherent conflict between the Confucian ethos and democracy." 

The ruling Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping often uses references to China's "Confucian" past to argue that the country isn't suitable for a democratic system with universal suffrage and the separation of powers.

"Students are required to critically evaluate the democratization process in some of the East Asian societies: Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, China, Hong Kong and so on," the course introduction reads.

The departmental website didn't say whether the same class would be listed next semester.

But a first-year student on the program who gave only the nickname Christine for fear of reprisals said she had been told that much of the political content won't be on offer next academic year.

"They are claiming that the name has changed but the content remains the same, but actually we have seen that a number of political classes have been deleted," she said. "There used to be a lot of elective subjects, and now there are only 19."

"I think they are slowly changing this major, and downgrading the status of political science in universities," Christine said.

She said she had signed up for the course to learn more about Hong Kong politics, and why there are no more pro-democracy members of the city's Legislative Council.

"But that hasn't been mentioned at all on the course," she said. "All we do is read history and look at examples from overseas, as well as different philosophers."

'Stigmatized' study

Political commentator Benson Wong, who is a former assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Hong Kong Baptist University, said academic departments typically change their names when they want to reposition their research or teaching direction.

He said the study of politics has become "stigmatized" since the imposition of the 2020 National Security Law criminalized criticism of the government.

"The study of political developments, or mass movements ... has died a death due to recent changes in Hong Kong's political environment," he said.

"Are there any institutions currently offering courses focusing on political or social movements?" Wong said, implying that none are. "About the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976] or the June 4, 1989 [Tiananmen massacre]?"

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Protesters in Hong Kong call for the city’s leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition, June 16, 2019. (Reuters)

Wong said that academic departments can no longer teach certain courses deemed "politically risky."

"This could affect the way a whole generation of Hong Kongers develops," he said.

City U responded to complaints from its students that they hadn't been informed about the changes beforehand with a statement claiming that "the decision was made after extensive consultation" that had included a curriculum committee that included students, faculty and external contributors, the Ming Pao newspaper reported on March 4.

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.

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