Politics, academic freedom and civic engagement: Challenges to academics in Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty since 1997

Wing Wah LAW, Suyan PAN

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


This paper examines the complex relationships between politics, academic freedom and civic engagement of academics in Hong Kong after its sovereignty was returned from the United Kingdom to China in 1997. Numerous works have examined the concepts and issues of individual academic freedom and university autonomy (as collective academic freedom), and proposed that they can be bipartite: universal across cultures and particularistic in specific cultures. Many other studies have investigated the third mission of higher education (after research and teaching) in equipping students (particularly undergraduate students) with the necessary civic literacy, competence and attitudes for civic engagement. Academics’ civic engagement and its relationship to academic freedom, however, is under-researched; this warrants attention. Using documentary analysis as the major methodology, the paper critically examines the dynamics and complexities of academics’ struggles over the issues of academic freedom and civic engagement in Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty. Specifically, it analyses six major incidents which were or were perceived as threats to academic freedom or university autonomy since 1997. Two incidents were related to the local (Hong Kong) government, and the other four to the new local-central (China) relationships after 1997. The analysis reveals eight major findings. First, these incidents shared two major similarities: government intolerance of criticism and involvement of academics as active citizens in participating in public affairs by sharing their views with the government and the community at large. Second, these incidents differed in terms of the types of actors who infringed upon or were suspected to threaten the freedom and autonomy of academics and universities and how the latter handled the incident. Third, the understanding of academic freedom on an individual or collective basis can be extended from bipartite to tripartite, with global/universal, national and local components. Fourth, academic freedom and the dissemination of academic views and research findings are not borderless, but bordered, depending on production sites and dissemination outlets. Fifth, threats to academic freedom and university autonomy can take the form of disagreements about the merits of the research, either external or internal in origin. Sixth, the mass media can play two contrasting roles in university-government-society relationships: a major protector safeguarding the freedom and autonomy of individual academics and universities as institutions, and a dangerous powerful force intimidating and suppressing individual academics’ freedom to express their criticisms and civic engagement in public affairs that the authorities do not like. Seventh, academic freedom is an extension of society’s core rights of freedom of expression and publication to the realms of academia and not vice versa, and therefore can offer very limited protection to faculty and students in active civic engagement such as civil disobedience. Eighth, universities can play an important role in protecting academics and students who engage in active civic engagement. The paper contributes to the field of comparative and international education with particular focus on higher education, academic freedom and civic engagement of academics in two aspects. First, it provides a useful case showing both how change of sovereignty and change of local-central relationship under the same sovereignty can affect the understanding and practice of academic freedom and university autonomy. Second, the paper adds to the theoretical understanding of dynamics and complexities of relationships between academic freedom and civic engagement.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2015


Law, W.-W., & Pan, S.-Y. (2015, March). Politics, academic freedom and civic engagement: Challenges to academics in Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty since 1997. Paper presented at the 59th Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society: “Ubuntu! Imagining a Humanist Education Globally”, Washington Hilton, USA.


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