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The precarity of researching and teaching Hong Kong

The precarity of researching and teaching Hong Kong

Desmond H.M. Sham, International Center for Cultural Studies, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Taiwan,

Eva C.Y. Li, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, UK,

A major concern that we all shared in the roundtable discussion is the arbitrary nature of the HKNSL. What count as “sedition” and “subversion” remain ambiguous and subject to the interpretation of the authority.

As one of our colleagues put it, “You don’t know where the red line is until you cross it.” Meanwhile, the imposed law can be applied extra-territorially, meaning colleagues who are not based in Hong Kong and/or who are not Hong Kong residents could still be subject to prosecution, with a maximum sentence of life in prison. As another colleague suggested, any critical studies of Hong Kong would fundamentally challenge China’s nationalistic narrative. When “sedition” and “subversion” are interpreted and applied arbitrarily, scholars need to worry whether their academic writing, teaching, or conference speeches on Hong Kong might be considered to violate the HKNSL, which could result in them being arrested when they enter Hong Kong or have a flight transfer there.

Given the uncertainty of how the HKNSL will be practiced in the context of academic research, one of our colleagues also worried that it would create an atmosphere of self-censorship. To avoid putting themselves at risk, scholars may refrain from publishing or commenting on potentially “sensitive topics” related to Hong Kong: research on colonial Hong Kong, political participation and social policy, and even popular culture and the entertainment industries. Panel participants also observed that some scholars begin to minimize their political comments due to similar concerns. Echoing our colleague’s concern and observation, we also observed that China’s state-controlled media has been targeting Hong Kong scholars and urging the Hong Kong SAR government and local universities to penalize them for “violating national security law.” Such charges take issue with academic works or speech that many scholars deem normal and within the bounds of valid critique.[1] Our colleagues generally fear that this could hinder the development of Hong Kong Studies, as researchers may stop researching and writing about Hong Kong out of fear for their personal safety.

Our colleagues also commented on the potential implications of HKNSL in the age of the neoliberalization of higher education. Nowadays, many universities in the West over-rely on the tuition fees of international students from a few countries. For instance, students from the People’s Republic of China constitute some of the largest international student bodies in both the US and UK higher education.[2] It is therefore unsurprising that universities feared that any changes of relationship with the PRC regime would affect the numbers of international students and thus their income, especially during and after COVID-19. As discussants at one of the Academic Freedom Space roundtables at ICAS12 suggested, the pandemic situation continued to erode academic freedom.

It should be noted that even before the imposition of the HKNSL, there were incidents where faculties teaching outside of China were required to tone down their criticism of the regime.[3] Pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) students forced faculty members to apologize for their views contradicting the Communist regime[4] and harassed pro-democracy/pro-Hong Kong students from Mainland China and Hong Kong. It is also reported that the PRC regime has surveillance on Mainland Chinese students studying overseas, even threatening the students’ families back home.[5] Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the situation. Researchers and activists questioned whether the safety and privacy of some online conference platforms (e.g., Zoom) have been compromised, and students in China participated in class activities behind Internet censorship.[6] The situation is even more worrying due to the extra-territorial nature of the draconian HKNSL. While some universities allow students to anonymize their course assignments to better protect students, our colleagues reported that not all their institutions have such guidelines and measures. Some even have not addressed the potential data leaks and compromised privacy from the online meeting software they are using for online teaching. This may put both faculties and students working on a range of topics that are deemed “critical” to China under threat.

As interest in Hong Kong increases, it is also expected that more graduate students may choose Hong Kong as their research topic. Our colleagues expressed their concerns for the safety of their students when they travel to Hong Kong for fieldwork. Even before the imposition of the HKNSL, Taiwanese academics critical of China have been barred from entering Hong Kong.[7] We worry that students travelling to Hong Kong for research may be arrested, detained, and imprisoned for violating the HKNSL due to their academic or civil society involvement. Citing previous examples of imprisonment and alleged murder of students conducting fieldwork abroad,[8] our colleagues believe that universities need to provide better safeguarding policies to support and protect students who travel to Hong Kong and Mainland China.


Desmond H.M. Sham (International Center for Cultural Studies, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Taiwan) & Eva C.Y. Li (Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, UK)


[1] Wong, R. (2020) Scholar who said #Hong Kong belongs to the world# refutes pro-Beijing press claim she may have violated security law, Hong Kong Free Press, 19 November. Available at: (Accessed on 30 December 2021).

[2] Higher Education Statistics Agency (2021) Figure 11 - Top ten EU and non-EU countries of domicile (excluding the UK) in 2020/21 for HE student enrolments 2016/17 and 2020/21. Available at: (Accessed on 30 March 2022); Opendoors (2021) International Students. Available at: (Accessed on 30 March 2022).

[3] Das, S. (2019) Beijing leans on UK dons to praise Communist Party and avoid ‘the three Ts — Tibet, Tiananmen and Taiwan, The Sunday Times, 23 June. Available at: (Accessed on 30 December 2021).

[4] Booth, A. (2017). Chinese students left fuming after Sydney uni lecturer uses contested map of China-India border”, SBS News, 22 August. Available at: (Accessed on 30 December 2021).

[5] Hurst, D. (2021) “ They’re being watched”: Chinese pro-democracy students in Australia face threats and insults”, The Guardian, 29 June. Available at: (Accessed on 30 December 2021); Needham, K. (2021) Chinese censorship found at Australian universities - rights group, Reuters, 30 June. Available at: (Accessed on 30 December 2021); Quinn, B. (2019) Hong Kong protesters in UK say they face pro-Beijing intimidation, The Guardian, 18 October. Available at: (Accessed on 30 December 2021).

[6] Sharma, Y. (2020) Universities fear online students face regime reprisals, University World News, 3 September. Available at: (Accessed on 30 December 2021).

[7] Chung, K. (2017). Author of book Hong Kong Nationalism among Taiwanese scholars barred from city, South China Morning Post, 16 December. Available at: (Accessed on 30 December 2021).

[8] Kirchgaessner, S. (2016) Why was he killed? Brutal death of Italian student in Egypt confounds experts, The Guardian, 24 February. Available at: (Accessed on 30 December 2021); Bush, E. (2018) UW student imprisoned in Egypt: A reminder that study abroad can be both dangerous and rewarding”, The Seattle Times, 14 June. Available at: (Accessed on 30 December 2021).

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