Pro­hi­bi­tion taints rep­u­ta­tion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Michael O’Sul­li­van is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ment of English at the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong.

Free­dom of speech and po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy on Hong Kong univer­sity cam­puses have been in the news again. The new vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Hong Kong, Zhang Xiang, re­cently said that the in­sti­tu­tion’s cam­pus should not be “a plat­form for po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy”. A few days later, the spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gion’s sec­re­tary for se­cu­rity, John Lee Ka-chiu, banned the proin­de­pen­dence Hong Kong Na­tional Party on grounds of na­tional se­cu­rity, claim­ing that it was “spread­ing ideas to stu­dents and link­ing up with anti-China and pro-in­de­pen­dence forces over­seas, such as those ad­vo­cat­ing in­de­pen­dence of Ti­bet, Xin­jiang, south­ern Mon­go­lia and Tai­wan”.

Hong Kong’s sec­re­tary for ed­u­ca­tion, Kevin Ye­ung Yun-hung (pic­tured in­set), then wrote to schools and uni­ver­si­ties ad­vis­ing them that “if stu­dents [are found] to have any wrong or rad­i­cal con­cepts, prin­ci­pals and teach­ers should pro­vide guid­ance, clearly point out the facts, and in­form their par­ents”.

His re­marks come just a year af­ter some Hong Kong stu­dents put up pro-in­de­pen­dence ban­ners on cam­pus. How­ever, while po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy for in­de­pen­dence is clearly and un­der­stand­ably a no-go area, stu­dents in Hong Kong, like stu­dents else­where, are likely to see their four years of univer­sity life as a pe­riod when they can and should cam­paign and vol­un­teer for a range of causes that are im­por­tant to them. Some, for ex­am­ple, might cam­paign on is­sues re­lated to gen­der pol­i­tics. But the min­is­ter’s fail­ure to spell out what “rad­i­cal con­cepts” he ob­jects to will strike fear into the hearts of all stu­dents en­gaged in so­cial cam­paign­ing.

And what are we to make of po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy on be­half of the Com­mu­nist Party of China, whose char­ter has long re­quired all or­gan­i­sa­tions with more than three mem­bers to set up a cell: a reg­u­la­tion dubbed the party’s “fortress in the grass roots”. New party reg­u­la­tions have re­cently been re­leased set­ting out how cells should be run. Uni­ver­si­ties are specif­i­cally re­quired to em­pha­sise “en­hanc­ing ide­o­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal guid­ance”.

The cam­puses of sev­eral main­land Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties that I have vis­ited also clearly serve as “plat­forms for po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy”. Stu­dents often take com­pul­sory cour­ses and ex­ams on the ide­ol­ogy of the Com­mu­nist Party of China and even on the thought of Xi Jin­ping. Is Zhang’s call, then, a dis­hon­est way of say­ing that cam­puses should not tol­er­ate ad­vo­cacy that de­parts from party pol­icy?

How are aca­demics and stu­dents in Hong Kong to un­der­stand this con­tra­dic­tion? On the one hand, univer­sity pres­i­dents call for a ban on po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy on cam­pus, and on the other, party heads de­mand greater po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy in all or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing uni­ver­si­ties. As Hong Kong uni­ver­si­ties are drawn more in line with main­land China, this con­tra­dic­tion will only be­come more ev­i­dent.

Zhang’s com­ments did not come en­tirely out of the blue. His pre­de­ces­sor, Peter Mathieson, who is now vicechan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh, was a co-sig­na­tory, with the heads of Hong Kong’s other nine uni­ver­si­ties, of a state­ment re­leased af­ter last Sep­tem­ber’s pro-in­de­pen­dence demon­stra­tions con­demn­ing “re­cent abuses” of free­dom of ex­pres­sion – which, the state­ment added, is “not ab­so­lute, and like all free­doms, comes with re­spon­si­bil­i­ties”.

Univer­sity pres­i­dents in Hong Kong are des­per­ate to at­tract more in­ter­na­tional stu­dents. They are re­warded in univer­sity rank­ings for do­ing so, and in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion plays into Hong Kong’s self-im­age as a global hub.

At the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong, we teach stu­dents from all over the world. These stu­dents come to Hong Kong know­ing that univer­sity life has al­ways been about self-dis­cov­ery, which often in­volves vol­un­teer­ing on be­half of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal causes that they feel strongly about. The Hong Kong gov­ern­ment needs to be clear about what kinds of “po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy” they must avoid.

Hong Kong’s uni­ver­si­ties are some of the best in the world, and they have achieved this sta­tus pre­cisely be­cause of their re­spect for aca­demic free­dom and free­dom of ex­pres­sion. As in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion be­comes ever more im­por­tant for uni­ver­si­ties in the re­gion, it is im­por­tant that these strong tra­di­tions are up­held.

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