Hong Kong campus rocked by protest becomes 'prison' a year later

Police and student protesters faced off at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in a chaotic 16-day siege last November.
Police and student protesters faced off at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in a chaotic 16-day siege last November.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - One year ago, Hong Kong Polytechnic University was in flames.

Police and student protesters faced off at the campus - one of Hong Kong's best-known - in a chaotic 16-day siege last November that became a symbol of the battle between the city's China-backed administration and anti-government protesters.

Today, what had once been a bustling, freely accessible campus is locked down, its protest movement extinguished in a series of aggressive moves to stifle dissent in the Asian financial hub.

On a recent weekday, uniformed security guards stood at entrances blocked by gates. To enter, students, faculty and staff must tap their university ID cards, while visitors are not allowed unless they receive permission in advance.

Though many universities in the US and Europe have been locked down because of Covid-19, PolyU's restricted campus is rare in the city - others including Hong Kong Baptist University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong still allow students and visitors on campus without prior approval.

Even so, students at all universities in Hong Kong have had to adjust in the wake of national security legislation imposed in June by Beijing, including a tip line to report suspected violations.

The dismissals of professors who supported the pro-democracy movement have added to concerns about a loss of academic freedom in an education system that has long contributed to Hong Kong's status as a business hub by luring international professors and students while enticing local high achievers to stay home.

"On the one hand, professors are more cautious about what they say and cover in class, a situation that has been aggravated by the National Security hotline initiative," said Professor Peter Baehr, a social theory expert at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. "This is creating a rat's nest of informers and some of them, sadly, may be students and colleagues. On the other hand, university administrations are becoming ever more tyrannical."

Prof Baehr and other experts on the city's university system say they are seeing what they call a replication from the mainland of strict Chinese Communist Party control. Patriotism and fealty to the party are key.

"This system rewards loyalty over competence, opportunism over principle," Prof Baehr said. "Academics are expected to take orders from administrators and lump it. They generally do."

A spokeswoman for PolyU said in an emailed statement that the university restricts access to the campus to maintain normal operations and reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. The university also has an obligation to take appropriate action if there's any improper use of its premises, she added.

"The university firmly upholds academic freedom," the spokeswoman said in the statement. "However, any acts that violate laws and regulations will not be tolerated."

PolyU said it offered almost 2,200 undergraduate seats in the local admission programme for the 2020-2021 academic year, and almost 90 per cent accepted the offer and completed the registration. The registration rate is similar to the previous year, PolyU said.

Job worries

Some students said they are worried that the campus's reputation as a hotbed of student activism could hamper their hunt for a job. Ms Kate Chan, a 22-year-old business student at PolyU - which has had one of the best reputations in Hong Kong among employers, according to the QS World University Rankings - said she has been grilled in job interviews about the protests.

"Sometimes, I feel embarrassed in interviews because of my identity," she said, adding that potential employers had asked whether she had ever supported or joined "riots" on the campus.

"Some people are very against university students. They assume what we are doing is damaging society - devaluing our existence and contribution."

Mr Kelvin Cheng, a mechanical engineering student who is the PolyU student union's external vice-president, said the physical landscape of the campus has become "a prison from students' perspective."

He added: "The school is inherently an open, public space. What they are doing now violates the values a university is supposed to have."

PolyU's "Democracy Wall" - a notice board managed by the student union where messages were freely posted - has been monitored by university officials since the security law was implemented in June, Mr Cheng said.

A year after the protests, he said, "it's like there is a deep wound, a crack, but the crack could never be erased."

Among materials on the wall censored by the university: A satirical cartoon depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping with his head in the shape of a virus cell, and a note that said "harbour" in a Chinese character, a reference to Hong Kong.

Academic freedom

Also worrisome to the university community have been the dismissals of prominent professors in recent months. Chief among them was Benny Tai, an activist and scholar who initiated the 2014 Occupy Central movement - the precursor to last year's protests - who was fired by the University of Hong Kong in July, despite having tenure.

HKU did not disclose the reasons for the decision, saying it was "an internal personnel matter."

His termination will have far-reaching effects, Tai said in a Facebook post. "It marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong," Tai said. "Academic staff in education institutions in Hong Kong are no longer free to make controversial statements to the general public about politically or socially controversial matters."

Social work lecturer Shiu Ka-chun, a pro-democracy lawmaker and fellow Occupy Central leader, said he had been unable to renew his contract with Baptist University in July. The university didn't give a reason, he said in a Facebook post at the time.

A spokesman for Baptist University said in an email that the school "follows established policies and procedures in handling all contract matters" and could not disclose details about a specific case, citing privacy reasons.

Tai and Shiu had been sentenced to 16 and eight-month jail terms, respectively, for their roles in the 2014 demonstrations. Tai is on bail awaiting appeal after four months in jail, while Shiu has completed his sentence.

Asst Prof Lokman Tsui at Chinese University who studies freedom of expression, said his tenure application was rejected in June, and he thinks his support of the democracy movement was a factor. He is teaching for the 2020-2021 academic year yet must leave after. He worries that such actions have a chilling effect.

"There is a pattern that seems to become clear, where more critical, more vocal teaching staff, research staff are either not getting their contacts renewed or not getting tenure," Asst Prof Tsui said. "It's problematic that even the perception of that exists, because that's a strong incentive to practice self-censorship if you are still teaching or researching."

Academic freedom is protected by the Basic Law - the city's mini-constitution - and is a cornerstone of the higher education sector, a spokesperson for the Education Bureau said in an emailed statement. Universities have institutional autonomy on matters such as selection of staff and students, the spokesperson added, and the national security law should not alter that.

"The NSL does not affect normal exchange activities between academics or higher education institutions and their foreign or external counterparts," the spokesman said.

Mainland influence

HKU drew criticism in October when it proposed to appoint a pair of mainland Chinese academics as vice-presidents. Dr Zuo-Jun Shen, one of the scholars, was reported by online local media outlet Citizen News to be a Communist Party member, which he denied.

Thousands of students, staff and alumni signed a petition protesting the decision, saying it would damage the university's academic freedom. If the school's administration hired the pair of academics, "it declares the end of the university's institutional autonomy," the petition letter reads.

They were both appointed.

"There is still more academic freedom in Hong Kong than on the mainland," said Prof Jeffrey Wasserstrom from the University of California, Irvine, and author of "Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink. "But what was once a chasm is now quickly becoming merely a gap."

There will be more mainland academics coming to Hong Kong, Prof Baehr said. Hong Kong authorities are more comfortable with academics from mainland China than their Western peers, given their link with Chinese rule, he added.

Students coming to Hong Kong from the mainland have been affected, too.

"I feel like some classmates, especially local, further distance themselves from us. For mainland students, we increasingly avoid discussing issues linked to political controversies in Hong Kong, which are too sensitive," said Mr Kevin Hau, a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology student from the Chinese province of Fujian.

Mr Hau said he feels like he's being "monitored by both sides: Local students and mainland authorities."