By Jessie Pang and Sara Cheng
HONGKONG – Last month, several thousand Hong Kong university students, some of them under the watch of a CCTV camera, were the first to take compulsory courses on the territory’s national security law.
The content of the courses, some of which Reuters has seenexclusively, sets out the dangers of breaking the law, in onecase demonstrating how a message in a chat group could beinterpreted as a serious breach, punishable by up to life inprison.
At Hong Kong Baptist University, at least one CCTV camerawas present in the lecture hall, while an unidentifiedphotographer took pictures, according to two students whoattended.
Critics said the courses represent an attack on academic freedom in Hong Kong’s Western-style university education system.
“In principle, making requirements on particular classes isa very serious infringement of academic freedom,” said KatrinKinzelbach, a political scientist at the University ofErlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, who has conducted extensiveresearch into academic freedom at universities around the world.
“Academic freedom means you may study and teach what you areinterested in. It also means the freedom to not engage inparticular classes.”
Hong Kong’s national security law, imposed by Beijing lastyear, itself stipulates that national security must be taught inschools and universities. Hong Kong’s Education Secretary KevinYeung said earlier this year that it was a “requirement” forhigher education institutions to incorporate national securityeducation into their curriculum, according to a governmentstatement.
The law punishes anything Beijing regards as secession,subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with upto life in prison.
A spokeswoman for Hong Kong’s Education Bureau said in an emailed response to Reuters that it is a “statutory obligation” to promote national security education in universities.
“The community would expect the universities to uphold good governance and accountability to the public, and their operations have to comply with the law and meet the interests of students and the community at large,” the spokeswoman said.
The bureau, added, however, that academic freedom and institutional autonomy “are important social values treasured” by the Hong Kong government and enshrined in local laws.
Baptist University, a publicly funded liberal arts collegewith a Christian heritage, did not immediately reply to arequest for comment on its course or why a CCTV camera waspresent in the lecture hall.
The introduction of the courses is the latest move by thepro-Beijing government to clamp down on universities and theirstudents, which Hong Kong and Chinese authorities blamed forstoking and leading some of the occasionally violentpro-democracy protests that took place in 2019.
Almost 4,000 of the 10,000-or-so people arrested in connection with the protests were students, according to police.
Since the introduction of the national security law, at least six liberal academics have been forced from theiruniversity jobs, according to a Reuters tally, while studentunions have been disbanded or ousted from campuses and studentleaders arrested. Starting next year, universities will berequired to raise China’s national flag daily, according toeducation secretary Yeung.
Critics say the clampdown is part of a broader move toneutralise the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. More than150 people, including many opposition politicians, have beenarrested for endangering national security over the past 16months, while schools, churches, libraries, booksellers andfilm-makers have all been subject to tighter scrutiny.
‘MS NAUGHTY’ AND ‘MR BREACH’
Hong Kong, a global financial hub 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 regarded as one of Asia’s freest academic arenas, largely alegacy of British colonial rule that ended in 1997 when thecity was handed back to China.
Hong Kong’s schools and universities are now being forced tointegrate national security and patriotic themes into theirteaching, bringing them closer into line with education inmainland China.
Four of the city’s eight publicly funded universities -Baptist University, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU),Lingnan University and Education University of Hong Kong – havelaunched national security lectures, seminars or talks as agraduation requirement. Hong Kong Metropolitan University, whichis self-funded, told Reuters it would soon launch such a coursebut declined to specify when it would start.
The courses outline the national security law’s 66 articles,detailing how they might be breached, while stressing the needfor greater patriotism and national Chinese identity, accordingto course materials from two Hong Kong universities seen byReuters, and interviews with five students.
The courses include the history of Hong Kong and China,highlighting the subjugation of China by foreign powers in thepast, and reference the existence of national security laws inlarge democratic countries such as the United States andBritain.
At Baptist University, the course took the form of atwo-hour seminar by pro-Beijing lawyer Alex Fan, who previouslyworked at Hong Kong’s Department of Justice. In the seminar, hewarned students of the sweeping powers of the security law andthe severity of punishments for breaking it, according to a200-page PowerPoint presentation seen by Reuters.
The presentation was followed by a compulsory 20-questionmultiple-choice test, seen by Reuters, in which students had toidentify security law violations by characters with names suchas “Ms Naughty” and “Mr Breach”. Several students told Reutersthey failed the test.
One question in the test described a situation where “MsNaughty” asks members of a group on messaging app Telegram toblock commuter trains to stop people getting to work, with theaim of “compelling” the government to implement universalsuffrage for the city’s legislature.
That 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 offered: incitement to secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Each of those are punishable by up to life in prison under the national security law.
At PolyU, the site of violent clashes between students andpolice in 2019, a 109-page PowerPoint presentation for itsnational security course seen by Reuters paraphrases the Englishliberal philosopher John Locke: “The right to punish isessential to the (social) contract and to morality”.
In one section the presentation asks: “Is criticizing thegovernment a crime under the national security law?”
The answer given is: “It depends. If the criticism involves any of the four major crimes under the national security law (secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with external forces), it may be counted as a crime”.
In response to Reuters’ questions about the course, arepresentative for PolyU said the university “places a strongemphasis on whole-person development and value education” andthat the course was necessary to help students “develop a clearunderstanding of issues relating to national security in thecity”.
Students’ reaction to the new course at Baptist Universityranged from fear to approval.
“I’m scared that my university assignments might get me intotrouble,” said one 19-year-old Hong Kong student who identifiedherself only as Mandy. “I’m scared that the government willcharge me with crimes I didn’t commit because of my coursework.”
The course was an attempt at “mind restructuring,” saidanother Hong Kong student, who identified himself as Michael.
“If you are going to do something, you’ll do it,” said athird student, who identified herself as Lulu. “It’s useless. Iwon’t become patriotic after a two-hour talk.”
Leo, an 18-year-old from mainland China, welcomed thecourse, saying that Western countries had influenced thethoughts of students in Hong Kong and they lacked awareness ofnational security.
“Mainland students have been immersed in that educationsince we were small,” he told Reuters. “Deep in our hearts, wehave a strong sense of identity towards our country, unlikethose in Hong Kong.”