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Tuesday, August 04, 2020, 00:24
The city still enjoys academic, press, speech freedoms under the National Security Law
By Ho lok-sang
Tuesday, August 04, 2020, 00:24 By Ho lok-sang

There is a proliferation of articles in the local press expressing the worry that the new National Security Law will erode Hong Kong’s academic freedom, press freedom and freedom of speech. 

Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who was recently fired from his post as an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, claimed that his dismissal signified the end of “one country, two systems”. He implored members of the university to defend the institution’s academic freedom. In his view, “There is clear evidence that a power beyond the university has overturned the decision of the university.” He had previously been deemed to have committed “misconduct” by the university’s Senate, which however concluded that this was not sufficient grounds for dismissal. The governing council of the university decided by a vote of 18-2 that he had to go. Tai led the “Occupy Central” movement in 2014 and was convicted of conspiracy to cause public nuisance and inciting others to cause public nuisance last year.

We need to ask: Was he fired because his academic research was found not acceptable? Article 34 of the Basic Law states that Hong Kong residents shall have freedom to engage in academic research, literary and artistic creation, and other cultural activities. Was Tai fired because he conducted research that was found “politically incorrect”? The answer is a resounding “no”. He was fired because of his criminal act, which has nothing to do with academic research. Either Tai did not understand academic freedom, or he deliberately tried to mislead.

Now that the National Security Law has taken effect, many academics are concerned over whether their research would “cross the red line” and result in an indictable offense under the National Security Law.

With the National Security Law in place, Hong Kong will have peace; and with that, Hong Kong people will enjoy more freedom of speech, not less. Since ours is a community, and we live together in a cosmopolitan, vibrant city, respect for differences is crucial if we want peace. Peace must be based on respect for others

To me, genuine academic research in the sense of intellectual inquiry should run no risk — if it is based on evidence and analysis and does not violate ethical principles. But some discourse by academicians could be persuasion and propaganda in nature, and some could violate ethical principles. Banning such discourse has nothing to do with academic freedom.

Tai was a law professor, and had taught the Basic Law for years. Article 1 of the Basic Law states that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China. Advocating Hong Kong’s independence from the PRC is not academic freedom and would be an offense under the National Security Law. Advocating the overthrowing of the Communist Party of China is clearly not academic freedom, but studying the merits and demerits of a “one-party system” like that of the PRC versus those of a multi-party system like that of the United States should be allowed. Academic freedom moreover does not include advocating blocking roads, stopping trains or vandalizing property, as this would infringe upon the freedom of movement of fellow Hong Kong residents and constitute a criminal offense independently of the new National Security Law.

I am a firm believer in academic freedom, and would advocate allowing intellectual discourse over controversial issues. Only with a wholehearted espousal of academic freedom can we find the truth. But we must not abuse the good name of academic freedom. 

By the same token, there are books that are political propaganda in nature, and because of that they are not intellectual discourse. Books that promote hate, discrimination or Hong Kong breaking away from the PRC, just like books that encourage criminal acts, should have no place in Hong Kong’s public libraries. Banning such books does not infringe academic freedom. I agree however that the criteria for banning books in our public libraries should be both reasonable and transparent. 

Article 35 of the Constitution states that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration”. Again I think Hong Kong people can rest assured that the Basic Law will protect such freedoms, as long as these freedoms are exercised within the law.

My friend Francis T. Lui recently had an article in Asia Weekly (Yazhou Zhoukan). He is unhappy with the intolerance of dissent in many university campuses in America. He noted that celebrities on the “disinvite” list include former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nobel laureate James Watson, filmmaker Michael Moore, etc. When a speaker presents views that challenge one’s belief, students often disrupt the speech with banners, noise and sometimes even physical violence. In Hong Kong we have seen people holding different beliefs targeted and attacked, and the attackers happened to be “pro-democracy protesters”.

With the National Security Law in place, Hong Kong will have peace; and with that, Hong Kong people will enjoy more freedom of speech, not less. Since ours is a community, and we live together in a cosmopolitan, vibrant city, respect for differences is crucial if we want peace. Peace must be based on respect for others. We must show respect when the national anthem is sung, and also when other countries’ national anthems are sung. We must respect our national flag, and the SAR flag, and also other countries’ national flags.

If we all abide by the Basic Law, there should be no worry about losing our academic freedom, press freedom, or freedom of speech. “One country, two systems” will prevail.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 


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