How Academic Freedom Ends

Timothy McLaughlin

Last month, a group of University of Hong Kong academics gathered on the third floor of the campus’s Jockey Club Tower for a highly anticipated town hall. Nearly a year had passed since Beijing imposed a new security law on Hong Kong, arresting dozens of peoplereengineering the territory’s voting system, and seizing the assets of a publicly listed company linked to activists. Staff members at the prestigious university, the city’s oldest, were seeking reassurance about how this new reality would change the school, its research, and their jobs.

The takeaway, one of those in attendance told me, was that “help is not on the way.”

By the time of the meeting, the university had severed ties with its students’ union, issuing a scathing statement against the group that read like party-speak from Beijingtorn down colorful walls of protest art along a main thoroughfare; and instituted a heavy security presence on campus.

The May town hall offered its audience little to feel confident about, according to multiple people who attended the closed-door session. The two administrators who addressed the group admitted that they had been caught off guard by the speed and breadth of the crackdown across the city. The assembled faculty pressed them on whether HKU would provide legal assistance if they were arrested for allegedly violating the law while working, what to do if students reported professors on a government tip line, and what educators may be forced to teach. (The new rules require universities to “promote” national security.)