On February 25, 2021, Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) canceled the World Press Photo 2020 exhibition three days before it was scheduled to open to the public.
The exhibition, which was scheduled to launch on March 1, was intended to showcase “the best visual journalism,” and included images of the 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. According to reports, university President Alexander Wai Ping-kong met with senior university officials before the exhibition’s scheduled launch. On February 25, following that meeting, the university announced the cancellation of the event via email, stating that “campus safety and security, and the need to maintain pandemic control,” had made hosting the exhibition impossible for the university. University officials reportedly feared that the exhibition would trigger clashes between supporters and opponents of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
The cancellation follows the implementation of China’s National Security Law, a sweeping law imposed on Hong Kong by China’s Central Government in June 2020, that has had far-reaching consequences for academia and civil society in and outside Hong Kong. Since its implementation, Hong Kong universities have increasingly cracked down on student dissent.
Following the university’s cancellation of the exhibition, its organizers found a private event space in Hong Kong to host the exhibition and opened it to the public. Julie Trebault, who directs Artists at Risk Connection at PEN America, issued a statement expressing concern that the university had canceled the exhibition, citing the climate of “censorship and fear” the National Security Law had placed on the city.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the cancellation of a campus event, apparently intended to restrict or prevent nonviolent political expression. University authorities must refrain from acts or decisions which prevent campus events based on concerns about the content of political expression therein. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, punishment aimed at restricting or retaliating against such expression undermines academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.