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Last month, several thousand Hong Kong university students, some of them under the watch of a closed-circuit TV camera, were the first to take compulsory courses on the territory’s national security law.

The content of the courses set out the dangers of breaking the law, in one case demonstrating how a message in a chat group could be interpreted as a serious breach, punishable by up to life in prison.

At Hong Kong Baptist University, at least one closed-circuit TV camera was present in the lecture hall, while an unidentified photographer took pictures, according to two students who attended.

Critics said the courses represent an attack on academic freedom in Hong Kong’s Western-style university education system.

“In principle, making requirements on particular classes is a very serious infringement of academic freedom,” said Katrin Kinzelbach, a political scientist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, who has conducted extensive research into academic freedom at universities around the world.

“Academic freedom means you may study and teach what you are interested in. It also means the freedom to not engage in particular classes.”

Hong Kong’s national security law, imposed by Beijing last year, itself stipulates that national security must be taught in schools and universities. Hong Kong’s Education Secretary Kevin Yeung said earlier this year that it was a “requirement” for higher education institutions to incorporate national security education into their curriculum, according to a government statement.

The law punishes anything Beijing regards as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

A spokeswoman for Hong Kong’s Education Bureau said in an emailed response to a request for comment that it is a “statutory obligation” to promote national security education in universities.

“The community would expect the universities to uphold good governance and accountability to the public, and their operations have to comply with the law and meet the interests of students and the community at large,” the spokeswoman said.

The bureau, added, however, that academic freedom and institutional autonomy “are important social values treasured” by the Hong Kong government and enshrined in local laws.

Baptist University, a publicly funded liberal arts college with a Christian heritage, did not immediately reply to a request for comment on its course or why a closed-circuit TV camera was present in the lecture hall.

The introduction of the courses is the latest move by the pro-Beijing government to clamp down on universities and their students, which Hong Kong and Chinese authorities blamed for stoking and leading some of the occasionally violent pro-democracy protests that took place in 2019.

Almost 4,000 of the 10,000-or-so people arrested in connection with the protests were students, according to police.

Since the introduction of the national security law, at least six liberal academics have been forced from their university jobs, according to a media tally, while student unions have been disbanded or ousted from campuses and student leaders arrested. Starting next year, universities will be required to raise China’s national flag daily, according to education secretary Yeung.

Critics say the clampdown is part of a broader move to neutralise the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. More than 150 people, including many opposition politicians, have been arrested for endangering national security over the past 16 months, while schools, churches, libraries, booksellers and film-makers have all been subject to tighter scrutiny.

‘Ms. Naughty and ‘Mr. Breach’

Hong Kong, a global financial hub with a population of 7.5 million, has four universities in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Until recently it was regarded as one of Asia’s freest academic arenas, largely a legacy of British colonial rule that ended in 1997 when the city was handed back to China.

Hong Kong’s schools and universities are now being forced to integrate national security and patriotic themes into their teaching, bringing them closer into line with education in mainland China.

Students sit outside the former office of Hong Kong University Students' Union, which was ousted from campuses in October. | REUTERS
Students sit outside the former office of Hong Kong University Students’ Union, which was ousted from campuses in October. | REUTERS

Four of the city’s eight publicly funded universities — Baptist University, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), Lingnan University and Education University of Hong Kong — have launched national security lectures, seminars or talks as a graduation requirement. Hong Kong Metropolitan University, which is self-funded, said it would soon launch such a course but declined to specify when it would start.

The courses outline the national security law’s 66 articles, detailing how they might be breached, while stressing the need for greater patriotism and national Chinese identity, according to course materials from two Hong Kong universities seen by journalists, as well as interviews with five students.

The courses include the history of Hong Kong and China, highlighting the subjugation of China by foreign powers in the past, and reference the existence of national security laws in large democratic countries such as the United States and Britain.

At Baptist University, the course took the form of a two-hour seminar by pro-Beijing lawyer Alex Fan, who previously worked at Hong Kong’s Department of Justice. In the seminar, he warned students of the sweeping powers of the security law and the severity of punishments for breaking it, according to a 200-page PowerPoint presentation seen by journalists.

The presentation was followed by a compulsory 20-question multiple-choice test, seen by journalists, in which students had to identify security law violations by characters with names such as “Ms Naughty” and “Mr. Breach”. Several students said they failed the test.

One question in the test described a situation where “Ms Naughty” asks members of a group on messaging app Telegram to block commuter trains to stop people getting to work, with the aim of “compelling” the government to implement universal suffrage for the city’s legislature.

That was a tactic adopted by pro-democracy protesters in 2019 to achieve one of their five key demands, fiercely opposed by Beijing. Four choices were offered: incitement to secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Each of those are punishable by up to life in prison under the national security law.

At PolyU, the site of violent clashes between students and police in 2019, a 109-page PowerPoint presentation for its national security course seen by journalists paraphrases the English liberal philosopher John Locke: “The right to punish is essential to the (social) contract and to morality”.

In one section the presentation asks: “Is criticizing the government a crime under the national security law?”

The answer given is: “It depends. If the criticism involves any of the four major crimes under the national security law (secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with external forces), it may be counted as a crime”.

In response to journalists’ questions about the course, a representative for PolyU said the university “places a strong emphasis on whole-person development and value education” and that the course was necessary to help students “develop a clear understanding of issues relating to national security in the city”.

Student Reaction

Students’ reaction to the new course at Baptist University ranged from fear to approval.

“I’m scared that my university assignments might get me into trouble,” said one 19-year-old Hong Kong student who identified herself only as Mandy. “I’m scared that the government will charge me with crimes I didn’t commit because of my coursework.”

The course was an attempt at “mind restructuring,” said another Hong Kong student, who identified himself as Michael.

“If you are going to do something, you’ll do it,” said a third student, who identified herself as Lulu. “It’s useless. I won’t become patriotic after a two-hour talk.”

Leo, an 18-year-old from mainland China, welcomed the course, saying that Western countries had influenced the thoughts of students in Hong Kong and they lacked awareness of national security.

“Mainland students have been immersed in that education since we were small,” he said. “Deep in our hearts, we have a strong sense of identity towards our country, unlike those in Hong Kong.”

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