—We Must Take a Stand or Risk Becoming Complicit with Chinese Government Interference
A leading Hong Kong university has fired its law professor, Benny Tai after he was convicted for his role in the 2014 pro-democracy protests. Tai, 56, was removed from his tenured position as an associate professor of law after the university governing council— composed of a majority of members from outside the institution, including government appointees— voted 18 to two to reverse an earlier recommendation by the university’s senate which said while Tai had committed misconduct, there were insufficient grounds for his dismissal. In April 2019, Benny Tai was sent to prison along with others for his role in the 2014 Umbrella movement— a peaceful civil disobedience movement.
In the same week, lecturer Shiu Ka-Chun also received a letter from his university stating that he had been effectively fired. Shiu, also a legal scholar, has taught at Baptist University of Hong Kong for 11 years, where his teaching had consistently been ranked as excellent. He was jailed last year for “inciting public nuisance” in the 2014 civil disobedience Occupy Central movement, and after his release, he was removed from teaching duties pending disciplinary proceedings linked to his conviction.
In a statement, Shiu said that his dismissal amounted to “political persecution,” Writing in a Facebook post, Mr. Tai also stated that “the academic staff in educational institutions in Hong Kong are no longer free to make controversial statements to the general public about politically or socially controversial matters.” The decision was, “made not by the University of Hong Kong but by an authority beyond the University through its agents,” he said, adding, “I am heartbroken to witness the demise of my beloved university.”
The Shui and Tai's dismissals occurred the same week as the arrests of four students on national security charges, the disqualification of 12 pro-democracy legislative candidates, and news of Hong Kong police issuing arrest warrants for six Hong Kong activists abroad. All incidents took place within a month of the passing of a strict, broadly defined national security law that, among other things, bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.
The university said in a statement that it had “resolved a personnel issue concerning a teaching staff member" after a "stringent and impartial due process.”
The Hong Kong-Beijing Liaison Office, which represents Beijing’s government in Hong Kong, welcomed his removal, saying: “The University of Hong Kong’s decision to fire Benny Tai is a move that punishes evil and praises the virtuous.” Chinese state media has accused the professors of colluding with foreign forces and described him as a “hardcore troublemakers.”
Petitions against dismissal of Hong Kong legal scholars
More than 3,900 academics, students and members of the public have signed a petition calling on two Hong Kong universities to retract their decisions to fire a pair of academics over their involvement in the 2014 Occupy Central protests. The petition stated that the dismissal of Benny Tai Yiu-ting, and Shiu Ka-chun was reflective of the political repression facing dissidents and of the shrinking academic freedom in the city.
Arien Mack, the Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology and the founder of New University in Exile Consortium, Andrew Nathan, a political-science professor at Columbia University, and Jerome Cohen, founder of US-Asia Law Institute of New York University, are among the 281 overseas academics who signed the joint petition.
In a similar petition, more than 2,500 students, staff, and alumni at the University of Hong Kong have signed a petition demanding its governing council to withdraw the dismissal of Benny Tai. In the petition, submitted to the university on Monday, the student union, which organized the campaign, also urged the council to make public the justifications for Tai's dismissal within a week and amend the existing procedures of having government-appointed members sitting on the council, including the chairman.
We Must Take a Stand or Risk Being Complicit with Chinese Government Interference
Hong Kong's universities, long beacons of academic freedom, are under threat and risk losing their autonomy and internationally respected status. Like all other dictatorships, China regards freedom of thought and political openness as dangerous. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Chinese government stepped up its control over students through "patriotic" education campaigns. It also imposed more restrictions on scholars. Despite this, academics working in universities, think-tanks, and NGOs have, over the years, continued to expose and criticize systemic injustices.
Since assuming power in 2012, Xi Jinping has tightened the government's control over civil society, the media, and universities and strengthened ideological indoctrination. Since his inaugurations, numerous critical scholars have been silenced, and some have gone into exile. In addition, new bans and restrictions of research and teaching on topics such as constitutionalism have impeded independent scholarship. The expansion of Chinese academic repression in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, where civil liberties used to be fairly well protected is particularly concerning.
We call on the Hong Kong government and the two Hong Kong universities to retract their decisions to fire Shiu Ka-Chun and Benny Tai and to drop the charges against the nine leaders of the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement and other protesters. We also urge the Chinese government to the uphold the legally binding Joint Declaration in which Beijing solemnly vows that freedom “of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research, and of religious belief” would “remain unchanged for 50 years.”
ESW calls upon all international organizations, academic and professional associations, and other groups and individuals devoted to promoting and defending human rights to protest and condemn Beijing’s pervasive and ongoing crackdown on Hong Kong Universities. We believe that universities and academics around the world must take a firm stand when academic freedom is threatened abroad because, ultimately, the global challenge of defending our rights requires collective and institutionalized action.
Please send appeals to the following:
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng
Department of Justice
Secretary for Justice's Office
5th floor, Main Wing, Justice Place,
18 Lower Albert Road, Central,
Fax: +852 39184119
Chief Executive Carrie Lam
Hong Kong Special Administrative
Region Office of the Chief Executive
Fax: +852 25090580