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The past month has been a roller coaster in Hong Kong higher education, where worries about academic freedom have been on the rise since Beijing imposed the national security law (NSL) a year ago.

Government leaders have entered the fray by implying that critical statements could be in violation of the law, leading to a police raid of the city’s oldest student union. Academics have also been testifying at a high-profile trial for the first defendant charged under the NSL, to debate the exact meaning and legality of protest phrases.

Experts told Times Higher Education that the city was entering a “new era,” where it could be more difficult to teach, research and debate controversial subjects. This leaves administrators stuck between a local culture that prizes open inquiry and authorities accustomed to higher levels of control.

“The NSL has basically brought Hong Kong into line with a situation that mainland [Chinese] academics and students have known for decades: academic and intellectual censorship as the norm -- the difference being that mainland [Chinese] have learned to navigate the whimsical nature of the system, while their counterparts in Hong Kong have not,” said Gregory Lee, professor of Chinese studies at the University of St. Andrews, who previously held senior positions at Hong Kong universities.

The latest volley was fired July 13, when Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive and ex officio chancellor of the city’s eight public universities, called on the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the police to “follow up” on a student union statement about a man who had stabbed a police officer and then died by suicide.

While the students had already withdrawn the statement and resigned from their positions, Lam said that their actions were “infuriating” and that she was “ashamed and extremely angry.”

That same day, HKU severed its already tenuous ties with the union, accusing it in a statement of “blatantly whitewashing violence, challenging the moral bottom line of our society, and damaging the reputation and interests of the entire HKU community.”

An HKU spokeswoman told Times Higher Education that “the university’s decision sets out its legal responsibility to ensure university premises are not used by an independently registered organization for activities that may be at risk of contravening the law.”

On July 16, police searched the empty union office and carried away several boxes of materials. The city’s police chief said on July 18 that former student union members might have violated the NSL.

Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) said on July 26 that it would no longer collect fees on behalf of its student union and would also mandate national security courses in the upcoming academic year.

Alexander Wai, HKBU president and vice chancellor, spoke to the press that day and was asked whether certain subjects would become “off-limits” under the NSL. “We can’t dictate what academics can or cannot do, but we are also not the police or government,” he said. “It’s a judgment we all have to make.”

Keith Richburg, director of HKU’s journalism school, told Times Higher Education that “Hong Kong has definitely entered into a new and uncertain era under the NSL.”

“No one knows precisely what’s prohibited and what’s not, because the law is only a year old, and there’s no precedent and no case law from which to draw,” he said. “So everyone is just groping along blindly, trying to find their way and not end up inadvertently tripping over an invisible red line. Lately we’ve seen the police and prosecutors expanding the definition of the law to include words, feelings and even thoughts,” he added.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, said, “If a lecturer should, say, raise the question of self-determination for discussion and asks students to use Hong Kong as an example to do so, this will have breached the NSL. It means questions like this are now extremely unlikely to be raised in classrooms. Likewise, an academic in Hong Kong is likely to avoid such questions for research.”

“It was not like this before the NSL was introduced last year,” he added.

Lee, of the University of St. Andrews, referencing the recent arrests of publishers of books that try to explain Hong Kong’s democracy movement to children, said Hong Kong was “well beyond red lines -- you’re somewhere between 1984 and Alice in Wonderland.

“Rather, you are retrospectively circumscribed by a circle of ‘wrongdoing’ whose very nature is unknown to you until the moment you find yourself encircled. No amount of close reading of the NSL can prepare you for that,” he said.

Running concurrently with the drama at HKU was the first trial for a suspect charged under the NSL, a man accused of driving a motorcycle into police officers while waving a flag with a protest slogan.

The nearly monthlong proceedings, which wrapped up July 20, included a lengthy and often esoteric debate among academics over whether the slogan implied secession or separatism -- a point that could become a legal precedent.

Francis Lee, director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) journalism school, testified for the defense that the slogan had no “one true meaning.” Eliza Lee, a politics professor at HKU, added that it could have several meanings depending on people’s understanding and personal experiences.

Lau Chi-pang, a historian and associate vice president of Lingnan University Hong Kong, speaking for the prosecution, cited ancient Chinese texts in arguing that terms in the slogan such as “liberate” and “revolution” had not changed meaning for centuries and could relate to overthrowing a regime.

Meanwhile, critical professors are moving on.

Johannes Chan, who had been at HKU’s law school for three decades, including as its longest-serving dean, said in the Ming Pao newspaper this month that he had not applied to stay on at the university after his contract ended at age 62. He is now listed as an adjunct.

Chan Kin-man, a sociologist who had been involved in the Occupy Central democracy movement, said that he had left for a one-year visiting professorship at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He was previously an associate professor at CUHK.

Ching Kwan Lee, a world-renowned sociologist and chair professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, confirmed with Times Higher Education this month that she had submitted her resignation.

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