The future of academic freedom is at stake in Hong Kong, once home to some of Asia’s best schools and universities.
News of this week’s sacking of prominent Hong Kong University (HKU) law professor Benny Tai, known for his founding role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement that paralysed the city for weeks, has not sat well with jittery students. “A lot of us saw this coming but we are still in shock,” said second-year HKU law student Wing Cheung. “Professor Tai is an inspiring teacher and leader and to hear of his dismissal is a monumental loss. It goes against the values that an esteemed academic institute is meant to uphold.”
Xinyan Loo, 23, an international student, called Tai’s termination “incomprehensible”. “I can only speculate about the reasons for this poor decision but I am not surprised if there are bigger powers at play here. After all, we are living in a new Hong Kong.”
At the time of writing, Tai’s official academic profile remains up on the university’s law faculty page. He was sentenced to jail last year for 16 months for two public nuisance offences but was released on bail pending an appeal, prompting his employers to review his role at the university. Tuesday’s decision by HKU’s governing council overruled a previous one by senate members who said there were not enough grounds for dismissal.
In a statement, HKU said that it “resolved a personnel issue concerning a teaching staff member” and that it had reached a decision “through a proper and lengthy process”. The Hong Kong-Beijing Liaison Office welcomed the decision. “The University of Hong Kong’s decision to fire Benny Tai is a move that punishes evil and praises the virtuous.”
Tai decried his sacking and accused HKU of bowing to political pressure from Beijing, saying the ruling “marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong”. “Academic staff in Hong Kong education institutions are no longer free to make statements to the general public about politically or socially controversial matters,” he wrote on Facebook. “I am heartbroken to witness the demise of my beloved university. But my fight for Hong Kong’s rule of law will not stop. I will continue my research and teaching in another capacity.”
The post was met with overwhelming support from Hong Kongers who weighed in on the announcement. “Looks like Beijing’s dreams of crushing and controlling young minds are coming true. I am sad and sorry that you got caught up in it all. Please continue to keep up the good fight,” wrote a Facebook user.
China’s ruling government imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, a controversial bill that has drawn sharp criticism from observers and human rights groups. The bill aims to punish acts of subversion and terrorism and is seen as an attempt by Beijing to quash dissent in the restive city which was rocked by a wave of pro-democracy protests last year.
Hong Kong’s universities, previously aided by free speech protections, have long been seen by many as beacons of academic freedom. Beijing’s new powers are seeking to change that by calling for a more patriotic school syllabus. Along with the firing of Benny Tai, academic freedom in Hong Kong came under threat last year when several students were punished for posting pro-independence banners.
The case of Benny Tai brings to mind that of another academic figure, Singaporean journalist and associate professor Cherian George, an outspoken critic of press control and government censorship. The 2013 rejection of George’s application for tenure at the Nanyang Technological University sparked fierce debate among his students, colleagues and media observers about the lack of academic freedom in Singapore being politically motivated.
George, now a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that it is “a troubling period” for academic freedom in the region. “Many Hong Kong academics may try to continue teaching, researching and writing as if it’s business as usual - not because we are naive or in denial about the might of Beijing, but because we know that a gloom-and-doom mentality could become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he told VICE News. “Academic freedom has been on the decline throughout the region and the world, as part of a long democratic recession. It’s important to use our freedoms, including any grey areas, or else self-censorship will stifle us long before any law does.”