I used to visit Hong Kong regularly, and also made a few trips to mainland China. One of those trips put me in a provincial Chinese city on the morning of June 4, 2009, a day that seemed to be like any other when I awakened. After breakfast I flew to Hong Kong, where the people were afoot by the thousands. That night I attended the massive gathering in Victoria Park commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
In 2013 I wrote several posts about the expansion of liberal arts colleges and universities into nations under authoritarian rule, for example The Charade of Liberal Arts Campuses in Authoritarian States. In a word, I couldn’t imagine how one would teach the Declaration of Independence in a country where political protest is suppressed, nor how to teach gender studies in a place where homosexuality is illegal. The professors would surely be tagged as enemies of the state and students who chose to study such texts would be put under surveillance. I observed that American universities were starting to self-censor in order to live peacefully with their authoritarian host countries in the East.
But Hong Kong was a free city. I lectured on liberal education at universities there and advised Hong Kong U on its Common Core curriculum. I made friends there, and the academics took seriously their mandate to make the “two systems” philosophy work. Occasionally some stooge of the mainland government would make his presence known at a talk I was giving, but for the most part the audience behaved the way I expect college audiences to behave.
Then came the passage a few weeks ago of the “The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” (Link here to a Canadian site with the English language text of the law.) It is impossible to overstate the scope and significance of this law. The four offenses are described as “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorist activities,” and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security,” each with a broad definition and a broadening rider, for example: “A person who incites, assists in, abets or provides pecuniary or other financial assistance or property for the commission by other persons of the offence under Article 22 of this Law shall be guilty of an offence.” Penalties are up to life imprisonment. The whole law is to be administered by a special force, not by Hong Kong police.
And there is more. Companies that violate the law can be shut down. Turning in others may lighten your sentence. You don’t have to be in Hong Kong to commit an offense under the law. In fact, most ominously, “This Law shall apply to offences under this Law committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region.”
I am terrified for my Hong Kong friends. Some are among the most courageous people I know, having worked for years to document the misdeeds of the Chinese Communist Party in the face of extreme efforts to rewrite history, for example the June 4 history mentioned above. One Hong Kong U professor, Benny Tai, has already lost his job because he participated in protests last year.
“Implementation rules” for the new law provide for searches (even warrantless searches), preventing people from leaving Hong Kong if they are under investigation, and so on.
To be sure, I will never go back to Hong Kong. Probably just discussing June 4 in this blog post is enough to trip one or more of the very flexible criteria laid out in the law.
But the reason I am blogging today is to ask how American universities will respond. Books started disappearing from Hong Kong libraries almost immediately after the law was enacted, as the ABC news report demonstrates.
Can Chinese students in the US read those books in an American university library? Well, they can, but will a professor who assigns them be putting those students under threat of arrest when they return home?
But that is not the big problem this year. Most instruction in American universities will be “remote” this year, taking place over the Internet. Many students will be at home. There won’t be any international first year undergraduates, but there will, I imagine, be Harvard undergraduates physically in Hong Kong or on the mainland taking Harvard College courses for credit. All their readings will have to go through Chinese censorship—either the well-known Internet censorship of the mainland, or anticipatory censorship like that already taking place in Hong Kong libraries.
British universities are facing the same challenge, and according to the BBC, have made a very straightforward and yet strange decision:
The pilot project involves four Russell Group universities - King's College London, Queen Mary University of London, York and Southampton - and is run by JISC, formerly the Joint Information Systems Committee, which provides digital services for UK universities.
China's internet censorship means that some websites are filtered or blocked - and there have been concerns that students in China could not study online, such as clicking on an embedded link in a scholarly article.
The technical solution, provided free by the Chinese internet firm Alibaba Cloud, creates a virtual connection between the student in China and the online network of the UK university, where the course is being taught.
But a spokeswoman for JISC says Chinese students will not have free access to the internet, but will only be able to reach "resources that are controlled and specified" by the university in the UK.
Any online information used in these UK university courses will have to be on a "security 'allow' list, which will list all the links to the educational materials UK institutions include in their course materials", said JISC.
Would Harvard agree to conditions like that? I hope not. But if not, how are undergraduates in Hong Kong or the mainland going to take courses in, say, Chinese history, or comparative politics? How, for that matter, could they read and discuss poetry about civil rights and personal freedom? How could they read English literature, 1984 for example? How could they read the founding philosophical texts of the Enlightenment, which laid the philosophical premise for the right of the American colonies to break away?
I have heard no discussion of these questions. At Harvard, there are any number of individuals who might comment but have not, as far as I am aware. The Vice Provost for International Affairs is a senior Chinese historian. The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies is headed by another senior Chinese historian. The chairman of the China Fund is a professor of Chinese studies who also holds a professorship in the Business School and was formerly the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Harvard’s president has won acclaim for his public statements and actions on DACA and on ICE policy changes. Other universities seem no more outspoken.
Perhaps no one is commenting because everyone is tied up worrying about other things. To be sure, Covid-19 has created threats to universities that demand immediate attention. Still, one can’t help wondering if the large footprint of China in American universities may be making them cautious about antagonizing the Chinese government. What was once seen as an opportunity for universities to become global institutions may have rendered some of them so dependent on Chinese students, donations, and hosting arrangements that their business interests are tempering their voices, even as their academic counterparts in Hong Kong are losing their jobs and those at top mainland universities are being imprisoned and fired. Follow the money.
As I wrote seven years ago, you can’t offer a liberal education in an authoritarian state. And that is exactly what Harvard and other American universities would be trying to do if they offer their own courses, unadulterated, to students in China. Or Hong Kong. They would be putting both their students and the institutions themselves at risk of criminal sanctions. With all the varied collaborations American universities have with China, would they imperil themselves and their students? But if not, what choice do they have?
It is a tragedy for Hong Kong. But the loss to the future of global freedom is even greater. There was a time when students came to the US and learned here how free societies think about themselves and how they translate those ideals into governance structures. Even without the illiberal trends in the US, those days seem to be ending, as both the US and China become more nationalistic.