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October 19, 2020

Hong Kong and the University's Free Speech Responsibility

In order to stay true to the Chicago Principles, the University must work actively to protect faculty and students' free speech in and outside of Hong Kong

The University of Chicago has a long, proud commitment to freedom of speech. After the Communist Party USA’s presidential candidate called for the violent abolition of capitalism on campus in 1935, the University president defended the “seditious” speech before a special session in the Illinois Senate. More recently, the University administration generated controversy and earned plaudits for rejecting “safe spaces” and promoting “Chicago Principles” of free expression. The report that outlines these principles states, “the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

However, months into the most alarming restriction of campus free speech in decades, the University administration has not lifted a finger or said a peep. If it really does care about the freedom of speech, the University must do more than end its silence. It must act decisively and again lead academia on the issue.

After a year of protests, the People’s Republic of China imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong this June. The law harshly penalizes broadly defined crimes including “sedition, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces” and advocating “secession” from mainland China. Most disquietingly, the law’s Article 38 asserts extraterritorial jurisdiction to prosecute activism and offenses “committed against the Hong Kong Special AdministrativeRegion from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region."

In other words, the law applies to everybody inside Hong Kong and out. It applies to you.

Beijing has a history of seeking the extradition of non-Chinese citizens to China for criminal prosecution. Students at American universities are not exempt from its pursuits and crackdowns. Just this year, a 20-year-old University of Minnesota student was sentenced to six months of imprisonment upon returning to China for tweets posted while in the U.S. The tweets were deemed to portray a “national leader” in an unflattering light because they likened him to a certain banned cartoon bear and "created a negative social impact."

Hong Kong student activists as young as 16 have already been arrested under the national security law for social media posts that called for “regaining [Hong Kong’s] right of self-determination.” Hong Kong authorities have also released the arrest warrant for Samuel Chu—a Hong Kong-born activist and community organizer who has lived in the U.S. since 1990 and has American citizenship.

Many UChicago students unable to return to Hyde Park are currently taking classes remotely from Hong Kong and mainland China. As Zoom classes are recorded and stored as files, and many classes require blog posts, there is a real risk of immediate arrest for remarks made in class discussions and writing. While this risk is most acute for mainland Chinese and Hong Kongstudents, it exists for any and all students and faculty who may one day visit Hong Kong.

Classes at other universities now carry labels to alert students that they will cover “material considered politically sensitive by China,” and their professors are experimenting with blind grading, codes in place of individual names, anonymous online chats, and allowing students to opt-out of discussions without an impact on their grade.

UChicago’s Tom Ginsburg, Leo Spitz Professor of International Law and Professor of Political Science, has a regional specialty in East Asia and has written specifically about the national security law. He confirmed that he has received no guidance from the University administration on what privacy precautions he should take. Ginsburg wrote to me, “I do think that, in our era of remote attendance, those of us who teach relevant subjects should be aware if we have students who are physically located in Chinese territory, including Hong Kong, that might be at risk.” He supports giving such students the option to opt-out of discussions that may violate local law and uses blind grading.

The University of Chicago must uniformly adopt the measures advised by the Association for Asian Studies and the additional suggestions of Asia Society scholars. While some may be, and have already been, adopted by individual faculty, technology policies and video software are university-wide concerns.

Zoom’s cooperation with mainland Chinese authorities is worrying, and the University must further inquire into which “local laws” its technology partners comply with to ensure that student and faculty data are secure. The collection of student and staff data of any kind must be minimized, and data storage must be decentralized. Overreliance on Zoom is dangerous; having multiple and redundant software systems would further decentralize and mitigate the risk of one company deciding to comply with Chinese law in ways that jeopardize data security and student safety.

Unless the University takes decisive action soon, an arguably more dangerous threat to academic freedom will worsen: self-censorship.

Author George Packer wrote, “Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind.” At a time when U.S.-China relations have deteriorated to their worst state in decades, we cannot afford to suspend rigorous inquiry and research into the affairs of the world’s most populous country. Students and professors must be able to continue honest, candid, and complete discussions about Hong Kong and mainland China in line with the Chicago Principles of which the University administration is so proud.

Ginsburg emailed me, “The purpose [of uncensored academic discussion] is not advocacy but analysis.” I think it can be both. When students are arrested for social media posts and pro-democracy professors are fired for dissidence, to resist self-censorship and forthrightly analyze the “politically sensitive” are acts of solidarity. When under the shadow of totalitarian censorship, studying and speaking freely are not neutral.

Good people can disagree over whether Steve Bannon should speak on campus. But surely all can agree that being imprisoned for a Winnie the Pooh tweet is as unjust as it is absurd.

Until the University administration rises to the challenge of ensuring its community’s safety, let us continue to speak, study, think, and tweet freely and merrily. We must.

Devin Haas is a third year in the College.

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