Thousands of students took part in anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong last year. Many now fear that the cherished academic freedom is coming under renewed attack from China. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

Scholars in Hong Kong are growing concerned that the territory’s cherished academic freedom is coming under renewed attack from China in the aftermath of last year’s student-led pro-democracy protests.

Attacks in Communist Party-backed newspapers on a leading liberal professor, reports of government interference in academic appointments and renewed calls for “patriotic education” to be introduced into schools have stirred up emotions in the former British colony.

Academics are concerned that China and its conservative backers in Hong Kong are trying to subtly exert more control over universities and schools in order to gradually rein in criticism and silence a source of unrest.

“We are very worried about the erosion of freedom of expression in Hong Kong — we see this happening in the media and it is now happening in academia,” said Dora Choi Po-king, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and member of a new “Concern Group” of academics.

Hundreds of academics signed a petition letter this month expressing their concerns about “political intervention” in the territory’s universities and “a serious threat to academic freedom, one of the core values held dear in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong enjoys very considerable academic freedom at the moment, and any attempt to curb that freedom is likely to be both subtle and fiercely resisted.

There is no comparison to the savage clampdown that universities in mainland China faced after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, but many academics are worried, nevertheless.

“This year the onslaught has been pretty substantial,” said Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, complaining of an attempt to “rein in” government critics or pro-democracy voices.

Hong Kong media report that the territory’s Beijing-backed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, has been attempting to block the appointment of a leading liberal academic to a key post at Hong Kong University.

The former dean of HKU’s law faculty, Johannes Chan Man-mun, was critical of the government during last year’s protests. One of his faculty members, law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, was a leader of the Occupy Central movement.

Chan is now a candidate to become a pro-vice chancellor at the university but has come under sustained attack over his integrity and academic record from two Communist-backed newspapers in recent weeks.

At the same time Leung is accused of appointing supporters and conservative figures to university governing councils. It is a charge he denies, arguing all appointments are done on the basis of “meritocracy.”

The government insists it treasures academic freedom and institutional autonomy as core values of Hong Kong.

One professor, who took part in the pro-democracy movement but declined to give his name at a sensitive time, said he had not come under any direct pressure as a result of his participation in the protests but said the trend toward tighter control was “quite obvious.”

“It is done implicitly not explicitly,” he said, with the whole system geared to deliver “a very clear message that you should keep silent, and focus on your own research.”

Academics said the trend was not new: There had been various attempts by Leung’s predecessors to interfere in higher education since the territory reverted to China in 1997, while pro-China academics have long enjoyed a system of favors that gives them advantages over their over their colleagues.

Yet scholars said they were worried the trend would intensify.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, said there was “almost perfect freedom” in classrooms and publications, but the pressures on young academics and the insecurity they feel created strong incentives to be “politically correct.”

Cheng said that pressure to take a pro-China line “trickles down” from top-level management to influence promotions at faculty level. Meanwhile, Beijing rewards loyal academics with valuable honors and posts at mainland universities but can deny disloyal ones access to the mainland to conduct research.

“Academics understand very well that if they are perceived as favorable by China, there are distinct advantages,” he said. “But if they are perceived unfavorably, there are distinct difficulties.”

Concerns are likely to rise further with news that the reputation of Hong Kong’s top universities appears to be taking a hit.

Hong Kong University fell out of the top 50 universities around the world for the first time in the latest reputations survey issued by Times Higher Education magazine on Wednesday, while Hong Kong University of Science and Technology also slipped in the rankings, which are based on a survey of 10,500 academics globally.

Rankings editor Phil Baty said it was not clear what had caused the decline but said it might reflect “a sense that what’s been going on there in the past year has highlighted the potential threat to open academic freedom in Hong Kong.”

Baty said Hong Kong had traditionally benefited from its proximity to China and its status as a bridge between East and West, with a reputation for exciting, innovative thinking. “There is a slight sense that this extremely positive outlook is perhaps being dampened by concerns over democracy, academic freedom, and free thinking,” he said. “That would be a real disappointment to Hong Kong if they lost that status as a wonderful bridge between East and West.”

Nor is the pressure confined to universities.

At this month’s annual meeting of China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, delegates from Hong Kong have been arguing that schoolchildren there should be given “patriotic” education, to teach them to respect China’s sovereignty over the territory.

That idea was first pushed in 2012 and provoked a mass protest by schoolchildren that in many ways was the forerunner of last year’s pro-democracy movement. HKU’s Davis says conservatives risk provoking another backlash if they try to employ heavy-handed tactics again.

“Beijing is trying to tame Hong Kong, but in many ways its approach is incendiary and causes pretty much all the things they are worried about,” he said. “This kind of thing makes people more aware of their core values, and in some ways it backfires on Beijing.”

Xu Jing contributed to this report.

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