Michael J Richardson
Only a select few of our learned societies have publicly denounced the threats brought about by the National Security Law in Hong Kong and most UK universities have remained eerily silent. An exemplar model has now however been put forward by the University of Oxford for how we can Stand with Hong Kong.
The National Security Law
The National Security Law challenges freedom of expression in a way that criminalises (including with the threat of life imprisonment) communication, ideas and even thoughts through the policing of words and images deemed critical of China. Human Rights experts from the United Nations have now stated that these laws breach international obligations although its effects have already been felt with, for example, the high profile dismissal of Hong Kong University’s Associate Professor of Law, Benny Tai, the arrest of the owner of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai, and the exile of pro-democracy activist Nathan Law. The level and reach of the National Security Law (introduced on the 30th of June 2020) is such that public commentary on it is deemed risky. With friends and colleagues in Hong Kong in an incredibly difficult position, the support from our privileged institutions is welcomed.
The National Security Law though applies to anyone whether in or outside Hong Kong and to acts committed whether inside or outside Hong Kong. This coupled with its loose terminology mean that words or actions which would not be so regarded elsewhere, are deemed illegal. According to the law then topics that lie at the heart of the academic enquiry within the social sciences, for instance – ethnicity, sovereignty, identity, and governance – can be read as subversive.
What does the National Security Law mean for universities?
The new law raises serious questions over the teaching of China and Hong Kong related content for this coming academic year. Where just months ago Hong Kong based scholars had written about the role of universities in the protests as campus battlegrounds, my more recent research has revealed that there is a sense of fear, censorship and low morale among many Hong Kong academics. These changes also mean that anyone writing or commenting in public on Chinese affairs may be deemed to have broken this law, if they express views which the Chinese authorities regard as interference or undermining.
This is precisely why we (and by this I mean those in privileged academic positions outside of Hong Kong) must do so. I commend the protections of academic freedoms put forward by the University of Oxford this week. Through the anonymised submission of work and moving from group tutorials to individual sessions, students’ freedom of expression will be protected. What’s more, the recording of material and distribution of this to outside groups will be deemed a disciplinary offence within the university. This will guard against the reporting of staff and students as well as guarding against a nationalist Chinese backlash on social media and institutional complaints procedures that have been seen both inside and outside of Hong Kong.
Meaningful solidarity can – and should – be forged through connections which are multi-faceted and multi-scaled, especially when it comes with the protection and support of an international academic community. In a recent Guest Editorial for Political Geography I concluded that:
The voicing of support for democratic movements must be accompanied by the active production of spaces of protest within our own institutional contexts (as seen, for instance, with recent industrial action among UK universities). I am not suggesting that some kind of essential unity exists between protestors in Western academia and protestors in Hong Kong or Lebanon or Chile. Protest movements and struggles for justice and democracy are rooted in particular historical and geographical contexts and involve specific grievances and goals, as well as varying risks for participants. (Richardson In Press).
I am inspired by the British Sociological Association and the Association for Asian Studies who publicly denounced threats to academic freedom posed by the National Security Law – indeed the British Association of Chinese Studies has drafted an interim report assessing the impacts of the National Security Law on UK universities. This focuses on the safeguarding of academics and students as well as the safeguarding of academic freedom.
As an advocacy project, I have been in conversation with the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) as well as the American Association of Geographers about replicating such a stance, as yet, they have not made a public statement and seem hesitant to do so. I believe that when our ability to communicate, to research, and to teach is compromised then international exchange and academic knowledge becomes restricted. Thus we must oppose such restrictions. By raising these issues within our learned societies we can begin to rework and unsettle disciplinary privilege. We must work with affected scholars (while protecting their anonymity) to fully support their struggle. The University of Oxford’s announcement of protecting students through the anonymous submission and discussion of work offers a strong blueprint as the academic year commences.
I write this as someone who has established academic relationships and research contacts in Hong Kong since 2014, as well as led international fieldtrips to the city. Irrespective of travel restrictions posed by COVID-19, the deteriorating political situation has led to the cancellation of undergraduate fieldtrips to the region without a prospect of their return. It has created a scenario where the attendance and organisation of conferences, employment opportunities, research, and academic integrity are all under threat. Bearing in mind the fear of censorship (including self-censorship) which Hong Kong based colleagues have spoken with me about, muted responses to the National Security Law from international academic communities are insufficient. We cannot simply shy away from a much needed defence of academic freedoms and sitting alongside deep concerns for colleagues, is the future of education, fieldwork, and research. I welcome Oxford’s leadership in this regard.
Michael J Richardson is Lecturer of Human Geography in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University.
Image: Undergraduate fieldwork trip encounter with officials at HSBC Plaza, 2018. Author’s own photo.