The recent Freedom in the World survey released by Freedom House shows that Hong Kong’s political freedom ranking has dropped. As the Chinese Communist Party’s intervention is becoming increasingly severe, Hong Kong’s political climate is facing an uncertain future.
Prior to last year’s Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong, the council banned some members of the local pro-independence factions from registering as candidates, and after the elections, two elected members were disqualified because their oaths of allegiance were said to be unlawful.
Furthermore, Causeway Bay Books owner Lam Wing-kei (林榮基) and Chinese tycoon Xiao Jianhua (肖建華) were taken to China for interrogation, which further damaged residents’ personal freedoms and freedom of expression, and posed a threat to the territory’s academic freedom and the superiority of its universities.
Hong Kong academia used to enjoy a good reputation. In last year’s QS University Rankings – Asia released by the higher education analysis company Quacquarelli Symonds, the National University of Singapore topped the list, but was followed by the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in second place and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in fourth, while the City University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong were ranked seventh and eighth, respectively.
Hong Kong’s advantage is due to high salaries, which allows schools to attract instructors; its elite education with an enrollment rate of less than 20 percent; and academic freedom.
Academia in Hong Kong has been seen as a paradise for Chinese studies that presents no taboos in areas such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution or the 1989 democracy movement and Tiananmen Square protests.
However, the halcyon days of academic freedom seem to have passed. In 2014, British medical scientist Peter Mathieson was appointed president of HKU. He has gone through several incidents, such as HKU students’ participation in the “Umbrella movement,” controversy over the selection of HKU pro-vice-chancellor and an information leak from the HKU council. The pro-Beijing camp was dissatisfied with his liberal position.
Earlier this month, he announced his resignation and his new position as president of the University of Edinburgh, where his salary is estimated to be half of what he was paid at HKU. This is a major warning sign of receding academic freedom in Hong Kong.
Its declining freedom seems to have caused a brain drain. In 2006, there were only 481 immigrants from Hong Kong to Taiwan. This number remained low for seven years. In 2014 — the year of the “Umbrella movement” — 697 people emigrated to Taiwan from Hong Kong and Macau. In 2015, that number increased to 891 and last year it increased further to 1,273 people. This is second only to the number of immigrants from the US and Australia, and the highest number since 1998. In another few years, it might even exceed the record year of 1997.
The election of Hong Kong’s chief executive is a power game controlled by Beijing. If Hong Kongers want to obtain democratic rights, emigrating to another nation might be more feasible than attempting to promote political reform. The territory’s political backsliding might also force financial elites and academics to move abroad.
While Taiwan is facing problems like an aging population and a low birthrate, the authorities should not only protect the safety of dissidents, but also consider how to attract talented people from Hong Kong to enhance freedom and democracy and bolster science and technology.
Lin Thung-hong is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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