Pro-democracy Hong Kong academics said they have been sidelined from the territory’s universities for their political views as fears grow that education is increasingly coming under pressure from Beijing.
Although Hong Kong enjoys rights unseen in China, including freedom of expression, there are growing concerns those liberties are being squeezed as China’s tolerance for dissent diminishes.
A former member of a top decisionmaking body at one of the territory’s leading universities described the situation for academics as a “bloodless political battleground.”
Students have voiced their support and concern for staff they feel have been targeted over their views.
They have joined faculty members in protesting against what they believe are political appointments of pro-Beijing management figures at universities.
Several academics who spoke with reporters said they felt their careers or those of their colleagues had been scuppered because of their political stance.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Cheng Chung-tai (鄭松泰) was in January dismissed from Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) after having taught social sciences there for seven years.
He was fired after being prosecuted by the government for turning the China and Hong Kong flags upside down in the legislative chamber as a form of protest against the pro-Beijing camp.
He was convicted and fined for “desecrating” the flags.
“The action I took at the Legislative Council has nothing to do with my conduct as a teacher,” he told reporters.
He accuses the university of “kneeling down” to Chinese authorities for commercial gain to safeguard its intake of Chinese students, who pay higher fees than local students, and protect donations from pro-Beijing enterprises.
Some academics fear university funding is also prone to political manipulation as grants are decided by a government-appointed committee.
Concerns that freedoms on campus are under threat were further exacerbated last year when 10 leading universities penned a joint statement to students warning them not to discuss Hong Kong independence.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) emphasizes territorial integrity as key to a resurgent China and independence talk in the territory is a red flag for Beijing.
Hong Kong Education Bureau described academic freedom as the “cornerstone of our higher education sector” in a statement to reporters, adding that universities are “independent and autonomous statutory bodies.”
However, critics said institutions are becoming increasingly conservative and are concerned that the influence of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong is growing.
Benson Wong (黃偉國), a political science assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, is a veteran pro-democracy campaigner who has argued for the right of students to discuss independence.
Wong received a letter in February telling him his contract would not be renewed when it finishes next month after eight years, without giving a reason.
“Universities will not promote academics who are politically active and offensive to the government,” he said.
Both the liaison office and the Hong Kong government publicly rebuked pro-democracy activist and law professor Benny Tai (戴耀廷) earlier this year for discussing Hong Kong independence at a forum in Taiwan.
Tai retains his job at the University of Hong Kong, but faces trial in November and possible imprisonment for his role in the “Umbrella movement” of 2014.
Democracy activist Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), 21, a former student protest leader, said punishment of politically active academics had led to a “chilling effect” across academia.
“These expulsions are being used as an example to warn other academics they could also be punished,” Wong said.
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