Saturday, November 02, 2013

Academic Freedom and Hong Kong

I recently posted on a listserv an announcement about the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship, a great scholarship that pays for PhD studies in Hong Kong. I was surprised to receive a query by an anthropologist who does research on minorities in China, asking “How much academic freedom is really possible in Hong Kong as an anthropologist? Is it that much different from the mainland?” I was stunned. Hong Kong universities are funded and administered totally separately from the mainland. I think anyone who knows Hong Kong would agree that Hong Kong has a high degree of academic freedom, with no restrictions on teaching or research, a free Internet and plenty of books on Taiwan and Tibet in the libraries. We are quite vigilant about academic freedom. But obviously the perception out there is different.

As I thought more about this, I realized that there are periodic stories that will pop up in the international news (e.g. The New York Times) that might make Hong Kong seem less open than it is. In fact, we are living through one such story right now. This is the case of Hong Kong Television (HKTV). Hong Kong has two free-to-air TV companies, TVB and ATV, which broadcast one Cantonese and one English channel each. There has long been talk of expanding the market, and a process of adding more stations has been dragging on inexplicably for over four years. A couple of weeks ago, the HK government announced that only two of the three applicants for new licenses would be granted, and that HKTV would not get one. The astonishing part of the story is that the government has refused to explain its decision. It says that Executive Council decisions are confidential. This is true, but it is bad politics not to give any explanation. It has emerged that consultants’ reports said that all three licenses could be issued, but it seems that there is some worry that the Hong Kong market, with only a bit over 7 million people, is not big enough to support five TV companies (and ATV is considered the weakest of all; TVB currently has an astonishing 80 percent market share).

Protests have erupted, confidence in the Chief Executive has declined, public opinion ratings of the government have hit an all-time low, and even some pro-government politicians such as Michael Tien and former ExCo members have said this decision needs to be explained or perhaps reversed.

It is not clear why the government is being so silent about the reasons. In the silence, speculation fills the gap. Some suggest that the tycoons who control the existing stations pressured the government, since the winning bidders are companies owned by tycoons who run cable TV companies in the SAR. Many were quick to suspect interference from China, but HKTV owner Ricky Wong said he doubted that, noting that he was not involved in any politics and that his proposed station was all entertainment and no news or current affairs. On the other hand, there has been speculation that his mistake was not including any mainland officials on his board to make Beijing comfortable with his company. It  has been suspected that because he is truly independent and has no investments in the mainland, that Beijing put pressure to have his license application denied. This is all speculation, however. It would explain why the government cannot reveal the reasons for denying him a license, but so would the tycoon conspiracy theory. Part of the reasons for the protests and speculation, however, is that people in Hong Kong are very vigilant about their freedoms.

Someone reading about this story from overseas might rightly worry about Hong Kong’s freedom. The Edward Snowden story also raised questions about Hong Kong’s autonomy. But the Snowden case also affected international relations (as well as legal process), so was at least partly under Beijing’s mandate. (As an aside, I find it hilarious that Hong Kong claimed they could not hold Snowden because of discrepancies in his middle name on the documents provided by the US. This is the kind of bureaucratic idiocy and procedural rigidity we often face in Hong Kong, both with the government, in the university, and even in banks. It made for a believable excuse in the Hong Kong context, though sounded ridiculous to Americans--as it indeed was. If he had been wanted by the HK police or PRC authorities, there is no doubt they would have detained him).

But when it comes to things like political and academic freedom, we in Hong Kong definitely do not think of ourselves as part of China. Indeed, I was surprised to read in Slate the sentence that said “... Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks advisor who has reportedly been by Snowden's side since he was in China.” I wanted to say, “Hey, he was never in China, he was in Hong Kong!” This is not to deny that Hong Kong is part of China, but that there is a big difference between his being in Hong Kong and being in mainland China. The tragedy of the Snowden affair for Hong Kong is that in the contradiction between following legal procedure and the need to follow Beijing on international relations, the law may have been bent.

Academic freedom everywhere is very important, and needs to be constantly protected and even expanded. This is why MarshallSahlins’ article in The Nation on the Confucius Institutes is important (see also an earlier NYTimes story here). These Institutes are established within leading universities abroad but have teachers hired by the Chinese government. Of course, every donor has an agenda when they donate money to a university. But universities who accept such funds need to take more care to assure they maintain control and academic freedom. In the meantime, I can assure readers that we are quite free to research controversial topics in Hong Kong, from religious groups to the Hong Kong Autonomy Movement to environmental pollution. Whether we get government grants for some of these projects is another matter, but then the problem there seems to be more that our government is most concerned with promoting research that supports the HK economy. But that is another problem. When it comes to freedom, we in Hong Kong even have professors who are a thorn in the side of the government and are organizing "Occupy Central," and no one is talking of them being punished or fired. There are costs to activism (see Chan Kin Man's case here), but not in the form of retribution from our administration. So far, at least, we have maintained a high degree of autonomy, and freedom.

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