Surveillance in the academy: the new compulsory national security courses in Hong Kong

Last month, several thousand Hong Kong university students, some under the surveillance of a closed-circuit television camera, were the first to take compulsory courses on the territory’s national security law.

The course content exposed the dangers of breaking the law, demonstrating in one case how a message in a discussion group could be interpreted as a serious offense, punishable by life imprisonment.

At Hong Kong Baptist University, at least one CCTV camera was present in the lecture hall, while an unidentified photographer took photos, according to two students in attendance.

Critics said the classes represent an attack on academic freedom in Hong Kong’s western-style university education system.

“In principle, imposing requirements on private lessons is a very serious attack on academic freedom,” said Katrin Kinzelbach, a political scientist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, who has conducted extensive research on academic freedom. at universities around the world.

“Academic freedom means you can study and teach whatever interests you. It also means the freedom not to participate in private lessons. “

Hong Kong’s National Security Law, imposed by Beijing last year, itself stipulates that national security must be taught in schools and universities. Hong Kong Education Secretary Kevin Yeung said earlier this year that it was a “requirement” for higher education institutions to integrate national security education into their curriculum, according to a government press release.

The law punishes anything Beijing considers secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces up to life imprisonment.

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Bureau of Education said in an email response to a request for comment that it was a “legal obligation” to promote national security education in local communities. universities.

“The community would expect universities to maintain good governance and accountability to the public, and their operations must comply with the law and respond to the interests of students and the community at large,” the door said. -speak.

The office added, however, that academic freedom and institutional autonomy “are important social values ​​cherished” by the Hong Kong government and enshrined in local laws.

Baptist University, a state-funded liberal arts and Christian heritage college, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its course or why a CCTV camera was being used. present in the conference room.

The introduction of the courses is the latest move by the pro-Beijing government to crack down on universities and their students, which authorities in Hong Kong and China have accused of stoking and directing some of the sometimes violent protests in favor of the democracy that took place in 2019.

Nearly 4,000 of the estimated 10,000 people arrested in connection with the protests were students, police said.

Since the introduction of the National Security Act, at least six liberal academics have been forced to quit their university jobs, according to a media count, while student unions have been dissolved or ousted from campuses and student leaders arrested. Starting next year, universities will be required to hoist the Chinese national flag daily, according to Education Secretary Yeung.

Critics say the crackdown is part of a larger movement to neutralize the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. More than 150 people, including many opposition politicians, have been arrested for undermining national security in the past 16 months, while schools, churches, libraries, booksellers and filmmakers have all been subjected to stricter scrutiny.

‘Mrs. Vilain and ‘Mr. Violate ‘

Hong Kong, a global financial center with a population of 7.5 million, has four universities in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Until recently, it was considered one of the freest academic arenas in Asia, largely a legacy of British colonial rule that ended in 1997 when the city was returned to China.

Hong Kong schools and universities are now forced to incorporate national security and patriotic themes into their teaching, bringing them closer to education in mainland China.

Students sit outside the former University of Hong Kong Student Union office, which was kicked out of campuses in October. | REUTERS

Four of the city’s eight public universities – Baptist University, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), Lingnan University and Education University of Hong Kong – have launched lectures, seminars or discussions on national security as a condition of graduation. . The self-funded Hong Kong Metropolitan University said it would launch such a course soon, but declined to say when it would start.

The courses describe the 66 articles of the National Security Law, detailing how they could be broken, while also emphasizing the need for greater patriotism and a Chinese national identity, according to course materials from two universities in Hong Kong seen by journalists, as well as interviews with five students.

Classes include the history of Hong Kong and China, highlighting the subjugation of China by foreign powers in the past, and refer to the existence of national security laws in major democratic countries such as the United States and Great Britain.

At Baptist University, the course took the form of a two-hour seminar by pro-Beijing lawyer Alex Fan, who previously worked at the Hong Kong Department of Justice. At the seminar, he warned students of the security law’s extended powers and the severity of penalties for violating them, according to a 200-page PowerPoint presentation seen by reporters.

The presentation was followed by a compulsory 20-question multiple-choice test, viewed by reporters, in which students were asked to identify violations of safety laws by characters with names such as “Ms Naughty” and “Mr. . Break. ”Several students said they failed the test.

One question in the test described a situation in which “Ms. Naughty” asks members of a group on the Telegram messaging app to block commuter trains to prevent people from commuting to work, in an attempt to “compel” the government to implement universal suffrage for the city legislature. .

It was a tactic adopted by pro-democracy protesters in 2019 to achieve one of their five key demands, fiercely opposed by Beijing. Four choices were proposed: incitement to secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Each of them is punishable by life imprisonment under the National Security Act.

At PolyU, the site of violent clashes between students and police in 2019, a 109-page PowerPoint presentation for his national security course seen by journalists paraphrases the English liberal philosopher John Locke: “The right to punish is essential to the (social ) and morality ”.

In one section, the presentation asks the question: “Is criticizing the government a crime under national security law?” “

The answer given is: “It depends. If the criticism concerns one of the four major crimes under national security law (secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with outside forces), it can be considered a crime ”.

In response to questions from reporters about the course, a PolyU representative said that the university “places a strong emphasis on whole person development and values ​​education” and that the course was needed to help students “to develop a clear understanding of security issues in the city”.

Student reaction

Student reaction to the new Baptist University course ranged from fear to approval.

“I’m afraid my college homework will get me in trouble,” said a 19-year-old student from Hong Kong who identified only as Mandy. “I’m afraid the government will accuse me of crimes I didn’t commit because of my classes. “

The class was an attempt to “restructure the mind,” said another Hong Kong student, who identified himself as Michael.

“If you’re going to do something, you will,” said a third student, who identified as Lulu. “It is useless. I will not become a patriot after a two hour conversation.

Leo, an 18-year-old from mainland China, praised the course, saying Western countries have influenced the thoughts of Hong Kong students and lack national security awareness.

“The students of the continent have been immersed in this education since we were little,” he said. “Deep in our hearts, we have a strong sense of identity with our country, unlike those of Hong Kong.”

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