SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: December 07, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):Chinese University of Hong Kong

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | Hong Kong 

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On December 7, 2020, police arrested eight people in connection with their alleged participation in a peaceful protest at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

As many as ninety people—most of whom were apparently students—participated in a November 19 rally and march on the CUHK campus. The protest took place the same day as the university’s commencement ceremony, a common occurrence in recent years in Hong Kong. Protesters reportedly wore black gowns and masks, and held banners and chanted slogans with pro-democracy and pro-Hong Kong independence themes. Media reports indicate that the protest was overall peaceful. University and state authorities later claimed that pro-independence graffiti had been sprayed on the campus.

In response to the protest, CUHK’s administration summoned police. Beijing’s liaison office, a unit of China’s Central Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, condemned the protest, claiming that the protesters violated the National Security Law (NSL). Human rights experts have criticized the NSL, imposed on Hong Kong by China’s National People’s Congress in June 2020, for its chilling effect on fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, and academic freedom, among others. Those convicted under the NSL can face lengthy prison sentences, including, in “grave” cases, life imprisonment.

Shortly after the protest, officers from Hong Kong’s National Security Department conducted an investigation on the CUHK campus, leading to the arrest of eight individuals for their alleged participation in the protest. Those arrested include one university student (name and affiliation unknown), two high school students, and five recent graduates and alumni from CUHK. All eight were charged with “unlawful assembly.” The three students were further charged with “inciting secession” under the NSL. Reports indicate that police expect to carry out further arrests in connection with the protest.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about police investigations and arrests in response to a peaceful campus protest — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Hong Kong is a party and to which China is a signatory. State authorities have a responsibility to abstain from restricting or retaliating against nonviolent student expression. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, the use of investigations and arrests in connection to a peaceful campus protest undermines academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.