CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Free expression stifled at universities

HONG KONG (UCAN): University administrations in Hong Kong are perceived to be tamping down on free expression over 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, Academic Freedom in Hong Kong, highlights the moves by the universities in the special administrative 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, a Hong Kong and China expert and the author of the report who also lectures at Australia’s Macquarie University, said.
Crackdowns on campus speech began in 2015 and have escalated, mostly in response to the Umbrella Movement for universal suffrage in 2014 that ultimately ended in failure.
Administrations have been heavy-handed in responding to any comment that may be perceived as supporting Hong Kong’s independence from China.
In September 2017, the heads of 10 universities published a joint statement condemning restrictions on free speech on campus, calling it unconstitutional, citing the 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,” William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said.
Free speech is enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, however, pro-Beijing politicians and the chief executive, Carrie Lam, argue that Article 1 of the Basic Law declares that Hong Kong is part of China, thus speech must be limited.  
High-level university administrators 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 under particular scrutiny over eroding academic independence since the nomination of Johannes Chan, a popular democracy advocate, as pro vice-chancellor, was blocked in in 2015.
Outgoing vice-chancellor, Peter Mathieson, resigned early last year, long before the end of his term, citing personal reasons. There was speculation the move 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, HKU’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 concerning freedom of speech “have not been encouraging … any limit on freedom of speech or inquiry sets a dangerous precedent.”
Zhang, a renowned Nanjing-born scientist, 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,” Nee explained.
On the mainland, 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 an 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 neighbouring 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 for research for 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,” Carrico said. 
“Give this regime an inch and they will take a mile,” he said.

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