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UK academics fear reprisals for speaking out on sensitive issues

UK-based academics have expressed concern that they may face professional reprisals for speaking out on sensitive China-related issues, according to the British Association for Chinese Studies.

The report was conducted, in part, as a response to The Hong Kong National Security Law. Photo: Unsplash

UUK guidance published in 2020 covers considerations and measures institutions should take to guard against hostile interference and promote academic freedom.

BACS commissioned a report to explore the impact of the Hong Kong National Security Law and broader political currents. The study was conducted in the first half of 2021, beginning after the first term of teaching in the 2020-2021 academic year.

“Among the UK-based career academics interviewed, a majority expressed concern about the prospect of professional reprisals

Some 25 anonymous UK-based individuals – whose work is either focuses on China or are holding relevant roles across university management or the higher education sector – were interviewed.

“Among the UK-based career academics interviewed, a majority expressed concern about the prospect of – and some described facing – professional reprisals for speaking out on sensitive China-related issues,” the report said.

“These risks were understood to emerge from the Chinese government and from within their university. The Chinese government could restrict in-country access or even arbitrarily detain staff or students and impose sanctions.”

The report was conducted, in part, as a response to The Hong Kong National Security Law, which was enacted on June 30, 2020.

The law criminalises separatism, subversion, terrorism, and collusion in and support for any of those activities by anyone in the world no matter where they are located.

In its first year the law has already been cited in arrest warrants for pro-democracy activists including citizens and those granted asylum in the UK and US.

The authors of the report noted that university employers (including departmental line managers) could impede career advancement or otherwise professionally undermine staff members who were outspoken on China-related issues.

“Those who worked on objectively less politically sensitive subjects tended to express a more inflated threat perception than those who worked on more politically sensitive topics,” the report added.

In a handful of cases, interviewees had experienced harassment of either themselves or, more commonly, that they had been made aware of cases of harassment toward their students from the mainland PRC or Hong Kong.

“If reported officially, little to no action had taken place to protect victims, enforce university codes of conduct, or guarantee academic freedom and freedom of speech,” the report said.

Across interviewees, most expressed concern about surveillance and cybersecurity risks. However the report said that “few, if any”, seemed to have practical knowledge about how best to manage these risks.

While academics in China Studies fields were aware of the risks their courses could create for mainland PRC and Hong Kong-based students and themselves, this awareness did not “appear to extend widely to those working on areas outside the field or university management”.

The report said that university leadership and sometimes academic departments are not transparent about decisions that affect academics who work on China-related issues.

“This problem impacts both individual capacity and academic departments’ ability to deliver safe learning environments,” the report explained.

Interviewees also expressed concern that existing avenues for communication and reporting problems to their university management and/or to government bodies were not accessible or responsive.

BACS made a number of suggestions that universities should take to tackle the issues raised by the report. It said that universities should offer risk warnings before students become university members, not when they enrol in a specific course.

Another suggestion was that universities should have an enforceable code of conduct, and proportionate consequences for violations of the code of conduct.

The organisation also called for institutions to create clear channels for reporting intimidation and harassment to universities and law enforcement should be made available to students and staff.

UUKi said it continues to work with members and the UK government to “support universities to manage security related risks in internationalisation, in line with our guidance published in 2020″.

The guidance covers considerations and measures institutions should take to guard against hostile interference and promote academic freedom.

Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute Nick Hillman said the area is a very important one that “we need to talk about much more than we do”.

“Our universities rely on and benefit from Chinese students and international collaboration”

“Our universities rely on and benefit from Chinese students and international collaboration, which is fantastic.

“But this must not be allowed to disrupt the commitment of UK universities to free speech, high-quality instruction and furthering knowledge.”

The UK government requires universities across the country to have specific legal responsibilities regarding the protection of academic freedom and freedom of speech – both for staff, students and visiting speakers, as well as academic staff having the freedom to question and test received wisdom.

Academics also have the right to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges.

Those put under pressure to compromise their values are encourage to contact government for advice and support.

“The risks of ever deeper ties with China are rarely spoken about but must not be brushed under the carpet as the geopolitics continue to shift,” Hillman added.

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