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: October 27, 2023

Attack Types: Loss of Position | Travel Restrictions

Institution(s):Chinese University of Hong Kong

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | Hong Kong 

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On October 27, 2023, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) terminated the employment of historian Rowena He after she was denied the renewal of her work visa in apparent retaliation for her research on the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, academic freedom, and censorship.

He, a Canadian citizen who had published a book called Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the struggle for democracy in China, had taught at Hong Kong University since 2019. In 2020 and 2021, she received outstanding teaching awards. She previously worked at several higher education institutions in the United States, including Harvard University, Wellesley College and Saint Michael’s College.

At the time of her dismissal, He was on leave from CUHK and in the United States while she waited for the renewal of her visa.

In early 2023, the Chinese government-affiliated newspapers Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po published a commentary that accused He of “slandering and attacking the Chinese government” during a politics course she taught while at Harvard University. The papers also called on CUHK to “eliminate anti-China forces trying to disrupt Hong Kong.”

In May 2023, He’s book Tiananmen Exiles was removed from Hong Kong’s public libraries during an effort to eliminate “sensitive” materials.

On October 24, Hong Kong Immigration Department informed He that her application for a visa renewal had been rejected. He reported that, during the renewal process, the Immigration Department had asked her to answer a list of questions relating to the funding she had received for past research projects while working at universities in the United States and about her ties to foreign governments and non-governmental groups. Hong Kong has criminalized these activities as “collusion with foreign powers” under a national security law passed in 2019. After He provided responses to the Immigration Department’s questions, she waited over a year for a response. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee stated that the Immigration Department made the decision after weighing “potential security risks to Hong Kong.”

On October 27, CUHK informed He in writing that her position had been “terminated with immediate effect” because of the rejection of her visa application.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary denial of visa and subsequent firing of a scholar in retaliation for exercising the right to academic freedom within her area of professional expertise. Such conduct 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 China is a signatory. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from interfering with and retaliating against the peaceful exercise of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and other protected rights so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibly. In addition, higher education authorities have a responsibility to protect academic freedom and take all available steps to ensure the exercise of academic freedom. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.