Academics at Hong Kong’s universities have reviewed their syllabuses and stopped recording student discussions in lessons to protect the free exchange of ideas, as the new academic year begins under the shadow of the national security law.
But staff from five higher education institutions who spoke to the Post said they still hoped teaching could continue as before, without exercising self-censorship, or avoiding controversial themes relating to Hong Kong politics and mainland China.
Students also revealed they might be more cautious about speaking during class, so they did not run the risk of breaching the Beijing-decreed legislation, which took effect in Hong Kong on June 30.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
No guidelines on the law have been issued so far from at least five city institutions, although Chinese University is believed to have asked departments whether their courses included elements of educating students about national security, a requirement of the new law.
The other publicly funded institutions whose scholars talked to the Post were University of Hong Kong (HKU), City University, Polytechnic University and Lingnan University.
The sweeping legislation targets acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security.
Despite assurances from several university heads that the law was necessary and they had not seen an impact on campus, critics feared a heavy toll on academic freedoms and classroom discussions.
Most Hong Kong universities begin their new academic year in September online because of the coronavirus pandemic, with several universities planning to go back to face-to-face teaching at least in part from late September or early October, following a recent drop in infected cases.
HKU student union president Edy Jeh Tsz-lam said that under the new legislation, some students were concerned about being recorded during classes both online and face-to-face, which might lead to pupils self-censoring.
She said: “[The student union] has always been urging the university to use a more secure platform to conduct online lessons. But as lecturers may also record the lessons, there are still [risks] over what is being said in class.”
Lessons are often recorded so students unable to attend can access them later, or so they can be referred to when revising for assessments.
CityU student union acting president Frank Wong Shing-hang also raised concerns over the possibility of discussions being recorded during online lessons and security threats to live videoconferencing platforms, such as data leaks.
“Students are worried about [discussions] being recorded with a copy kept [by somebody]. Whether something I say today at class could be used against me, say like maybe three months later?” Wong said.
Hong Kong universities are renowned worldwide for their ability to teach students to think well. If we can no longer do this, then Hong Kong is over
Gordon Mathews, Chinese University professor
Two emails to students seen by the Post from teaching staff at CityU’s department of public policy showed they had suggested class discussions would not be recorded in the new term to encourage learners to “actively engage”.
A scholar from City University said teaching staff were normally expected to record online lectures and discussions – even before the law came into effect – although individual faculty members could request an opt-out if they submitted a special request.
The Post was told some Chinese University academics had considered adding a clause to the course requirements, warning students they might automatically fail if they were found recording classes.
Still, others believed it was difficult to prevent people recording lectures, whether online or face-to-face.
Chinese University anthropology professor Gordon Mathews, who teaches a course on Hong Kong culture which discusses the city’s future, said he would hold a vote to see if students would rather recorded lectures be taken down after a certain period of time, or left online indefinitely.
“I prefer to leave it, as I really want to demonstrate that what we are doing is not something to be afraid of,” he said, but added he would “avoid making unnecessary jokes” in lectures in case they were taken out of context.
Mathews added he would caution his students against calling in class for “Hong Kong independence”. “You can certainly talk about this and you can indicate your sympathies even, but be careful how you do it.”
Meanwhile, HKU gender and sexuality studies professor Petula Ho Sik-ying, who has taught at the university for more than 30 years, was one of the scholars reviewing the curriculum of her courses over the summer in the wake of the new law.
Ho, who teaches under the department of social work and social administration, said she did not remove anything critical of the mainland Chinese government in her course, “Love, Marriage and Sex in Modern China”.
Insisting she would keep on teaching as before, Ho said: “I did [the review] not because I am afraid of the national security law.
“But now I have included more in-depth analyses in the curriculum with a balanced perspective and I am comfortable with it.”
Sensitive topics including the plight of the families of human rights lawyers in the “709 crackdown” were still taught in Ho’s class.
Critics have called the 2015 nationwide crackdown that targeted hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists a move to silence the emerging pro-freedoms movement on the mainland.
A Chinese University social sciences professor also said some teaching staff had reviewed their teaching materials and syllabus after the new law came into effect.
“It was not a requirement by the [faculty]. It’s a typical move that teachers would review their syllabus before the term begins, but this time … staff members have paid more attention to potentially sensitive topics,” said the professor, who asked to remain anonymous. “But I have not heard of anyone trying to avoid these sensitive topics as a result.”
“Our basic attitude is to not self-censor for as long as we can, while only mentioning such [sensitive] topics in an academic way, instead of trying to advocate anything.”
Professor William Hayward, social sciences dean at HKU, said his faculty had “given no instructions to teachers regarding any limitations in material or teaching methods” under the law, adding that teachers were supported to cover materials they deemed relevant.
Without offering any specific guidance, City University has drafted a list of frequently asked questions on how the new law would affect teaching, as it reassured staff that sensitive topics could still be discussed in the classroom, as long as they were approached in an academic way.
The three-page note, obtained by the Post, also advised scholars to “prepare a written record of what transpired in the class” and share it with the department head if he or she was accused by students of violating the law in a classroom setting.
The Post also posed questions directly to all eight publicly funded universities in Hong Kong over the national security law, but only two responded.
HKU said it would continue to “uphold academic freedom and the freedom of thought and speech”, while Chinese University said academic freedom was “always subject to the limits of the law” while reasoned discourse would remain the norm.
Ip Iam-chong, a visiting assistant professor from Lingnan University’s cultural studies department whose area of interest includes contemporary China studies, said he had always handled his classes “as if I’m teaching in the public domain”.
“I won’t avoid sensitive topics in class, and I also won’t know whether certain topics could be in violation of the national security law as many of its definitions are vague,” he said.
Highlighting an example, Ip said the controversial 2015 film Ten Years, which depicts a dystopian future of Hong Kong under Beijing’s total rule, and was banned in mainland China, was named as a reference material under one of his courses in the new term.
A Polytechnic University social sciences academic, however, said he had not reviewed his teaching materials. “There should not be any taboos in classes,” he said. “Critical discussions featuring all sides of views should be the objectives of a scholar.”
Mathews, from Chinese University, said: “Hong Kong universities are renowned worldwide for their ability to teach students to think well. If we can no longer do this, then Hong Kong is over.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- What is Hong Kong’s colonial-era sedition law, and how does it fit into landscape of national security legislation?
- National security law: for Hong Kong scholars, a fear of the unknown
- Pupil suspended by school for displaying ‘free Hong Kong’ slogan during online classes, as officials warn actions could violate national security law
- Japan’s largest online broker SBI says it may downsize in Hong Kong as city’s financial future comes under threat by security law
- National security law: keep views on Hong Kong politics to yourself, international school group warns teachers in new guidelines
This article National security law: Hong Kong lecturers review university syllabuses, move to protect student freedoms for start of academic year under new legislation first appeared on South China Morning Post