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: April 28, 2021

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):University of Hong Kong

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | Hong Kong 

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 28, 2021, the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) administration announced sanctions against the student union for its public expressions regarding political developments in Hong Kong and the university administration.

On March 5, China’s Education Minister Kevin Yeung Yun-hung announced that Hong Kong universities would be expected to reflect the National Security Law (NSL) in mandatory curricula and “prevent and suppress” student and faculty acts that violated it. China’s National Security Law is 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.

On April 16, HKU’s student union (HKUSU) issued an open letter to the university’s president, Xiang Zhang, stating concerns over the mandated national security education and how it was to be implemented in curricula. The students also stated that national security education was a “crisis of institutional autonomy,” as it was being used as a guise for the university to undertake “political tasks” for the Chinese Communist Party. 

In response to the student letter, on April 19 the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, published an article attacking HKU’s student union, stating that students “discredited” national security education and that the union “reached a point where it has to be controlled as it has been testing the bottom line crazily.” 

On April 28, the HKU released a statement describing the student union as “increasingly politicized,” using the university as a platform for “political propaganda,” and disregarding the interests of the HKU community. The university said that it had “decided to stop collecting membership fees on behalf of the HKUSU, cease providing financial management services for [HKUSU], and will enforce its management rights over the offices and other facilities currently used by HKUSU. The University may also take further actions if necessary.”

In response to the university’s decision, HKUSU issued a statement on May 1 that it had always strived for the “welfare of students and the good governance of the university” and that the university’s act “severely undermined the interests of students.”

HKU’s decision follows a similar order at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which cut ties with its student union council in February (see report).

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the sanctioning of a student union and its members, apparently intended to restrict or retaliate against nonviolent political expression and criticism of university leadership. University authorities must refrain from retaliating against nonviolent expression so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. 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.