One year ago, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) was in flames.
Police and student protesters faced off at the campus — one of Hong Kong’s best-known — in a chaotic 16-day siege last November that became a symbol of the battle between
the city’s China-backed administration and anti-government protesters.
Today, what had once been a bustling, freely accessible campus is locked down, its protest movement extinguished in a series of aggressive moves to stifle dissent in the Asian financial hub. On a recent weekday, uniformed security guards stood at entrances blocked by gates.
To enter, students, faculty and staff must tap their university ID cards, while visitors are not
allowed unless they receive
permission in advance. Though many universities in the US and Europe have been locked down because of Covid-19, PolyU’s
restricted campus is rare in the city — others including Hong Kong Baptist University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong still allow students and visitors on campus without prior approval.
Even so, students at all universities in Hong Kong have had to adjust in the wake of national security legislation imposed in June by Beijing, including a
tip line to report suspected violations. The dismissals of professors who supported the pro-democracy movement have added to concerns about a loss of academic freedom in an education system that has long contributed to Hong Kong’s status as a business hub by luring international professors and students while enticing local high achievers to stay home.
“On the one hand, professors are more cautious about what they say and cover in class, a situation that has been aggravated by the National Security hotline initiative,” said Peter Baehr, a professor of social theory at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “This is creating a rat’s nest of informers and some of them, sadly, may be students and colleagues. On the other hand, university administrations are becoming ever more tyrannical.”
Today, what had once been a bustling, freely accessible campus is locked down. Baehr and other experts on the city’s university system say they are seeing what they call a replication from the mainland of strict Chinese Communist Party control. Patriotism and fealty to the party are key. “This system rewards loyalty over competence, opportunism over principle,” Baehr said. “Academics are expected to take orders from administrators and lump it. They generally do.”
A spokeswoman for PolyU said in an emailed statement that the university restricts access to the campus to maintain normal operations and reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. The university also has an obligation to take appropriate action if there’s any improper use of its premises, she added.
“The university firmly upholds academic freedom,” the spokeswoman said in the statement. “However, any acts that violate laws and regulations will not be tolerated.”
PolyU said it offered almost 2,200 undergraduate seats in the local admission program for the 2020-2021 academic year, and almost 90% accepted the offer and completed the registration. The registration rate is similar to the previous year, PolyU said.