More bad news regarding Hong Kong institutions and Chinese government repression:

The heads of the governing councils of Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities have backed a plan announced by Beijing last month to impose a national security law on the city, in an act that many academics see as ‘doing Beijing’s bidding’.

Some fear such statements on policies from Beijing emanating from universities could lead to the politicisation of institutions in Hong Kong, which are already polarised between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing groups.

China’s view is that increasingly violent protests over the past year in Hong Kong are a threat to national security. But when it was first revealed last month, the national security law took Hong Kong and the world by surprise – in particular because it would be imposed directly by Beijing on Hong Kong, in contravention of treaties allowing Hong Kong to keep freedoms separate from mainland China under the policy of ‘one country, two systems’.

A resolution was passed in the 28 May session of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), to draft the law to prohibit “acts of subversion, succession, terrorism and involvement with foreign interference in Hong Kong”. It would also allow China’s security intelligence agencies to operate in Hong Kong.

The joint statement released on 1 June by the chair of the governing councils of eight Hong Kong universities said: “As residents of Hong Kong, we enjoy the protection provided by the state, and in turn have a reciprocal obligation to protect the state by supporting the introduction of legislation which prohibits criminal acts that threaten the existence of the state.”

”We therefore support the national security laws which will operate under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, to better ensure universities can continue to create knowledge through research and learning,” it added.

Council statement followed a more limited statement

But hours earlier, university vice-chancellors and presidents of five of the eight universities – Hong Kong University, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Lingnan University and the Education University of Hong Kong – issued their own joint statement which said: “We fully support ‘one country, two systems’, understand the need for national security legislation and value the freedom of speech, of the press, of publication, of assembly and other rights the Basic Law confers upon the people of Hong Kong.”

The Basic Law is Hong Kong’s mini constitution.

Conspicuous by their absence were the signatures of the heads of City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Baptist University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. City University sources said the university administration sought to “separate education and politics” while backing the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.

A separate statement from Baptist University President Roland Chin was a more subdued version. “We highly appreciate the importance of national security and Hong Kong’s stability,” Chin said. “It is our earnest hope that the national security legislation will continue to protect academic freedom and institutional autonomy as promised in the Basic Law.”

Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said: “The council is the highest ruling body in any university so adding the council means doubling down on this protestation of support for Beijing. Usually the [university] president would be enough.”

Lam said he assumed the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong had put pressure on university presidents to profess public support for the national security law. “In the NPC discussion about Hong Kong they emphasised a need to boost patriotic education, so education is very important for the Chinese government. They are very keen to have [university] presidents sign up to this profession of support for Beijing,” Lam told University World News.

“This is standard [Communist] Party strategy to prop up its legitimacy by showing its policies have ‘support’,” said another CUHK academic. “Beijing wants to show that their hated national security law has support of respected academics and academic institutions.”

A proportion of university council members are directly appointed by Hong Kong’s chief executive, who also acts as chancellor of all the publicly funded universities. The two statements came just before a trip to Beijing on 3 June by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other top Hong Kong officials, reportedly to discuss the new law.

Carrie Lam said last week her administration would fully cooperate with Beijing on the legislation, which will be enacted in Hong Kong without any input from Hong Kong’s legislature.

Precedents in issuing joint statements

Academics noted that it was not unusual for university presidents in Hong Kong to issue joint statements, though these were usually in relation to issues directly related to university affairs and student activities, particularly during the Umbrella Movement student protests in 2014-16 and student protests over the now withdrawn Hong Kong bill to extradite criminals to China, which saw weeks of unbroken protests from June 2019 to January 2020.

In June 2019, 10 university heads issued a joint statement urging calm as students began their protests against the extradition bill.

Joint statements have included a statement in November from nine university presidents criticising government demands for universities to resolve student discontent which led to major campus battles with police at CUHK and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019.

Joint statements from university governing councils are rarer, but in October 2019, in the wake of a large number of students being arrested during protests, and attempts by university heads to assist them in various ways, the heads of eight university governing councils in Hong Kong issued a joint statement saying assistance provided by universities to arrested students and staff did not represent any support for their political views.

In September 2017, 10 university presidents and vice-chancellors issued a joint statement condemning “abuses” of freedom of expression after some students put up banners advocating Hong Kong’s independence from China. “We do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law,” that statement said.

Beijing demands support

Beijing-backed groups in Hong Kong have been exhorting companies and organisations to publicly support the proposed law, including civil servants, police and immigration officers, as well as canvassing individuals to sign a petition in favour of the law.

“Calling on university administrations to back the law proposed by Beijing is not the Hong Kong way of doing things. This law is not directly part of campus governance. Instead, it is the Communist Party’s common practice of co-opting groups and individuals to show allegiance and support of the party,” said one normally outspoken academic who asked in this instance to remain anonymous. “Hong Kong’s universities are autonomous; they should not be backing political positions decided in Beijing.”

Lokman Tsui, assistant professor at CUHK’s school of journalism and communication, said via Twitter: “As a professor at CUHK I want to express my opposition to the national security legislation. I am concerned it will harm Hong Kong’s freedom of speech, press freedom, academic freedom and the rule of law that underpins these and other freedoms.”

Well-known Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai, who was arrested on 28 February, along with other major pro-democracy figures on charges of illegal assembly, and was later released on bail, referred to the joint statement by the five university heads in a tweet: “This is the end of academic freedom in HK. Higher education was once a paramount institution in defending our freedom to pursue knowledge.”