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Tuesday, July 14, 2020, 10:30
Political advocacy has no place in academic freedom
By Ho Lok-sang
Tuesday, July 14, 2020, 10:30 By Ho Lok-sang

Like most academics in Hong Kong, I am all for academic freedom. However, academic freedom must be understood as freedom for intellectual inquiry without inhibition from political or other interference. Political advocacy, on the other hand, is not intellectual inquiry. It has no place in our schools.

The starting point of all intellectual inquiry must be humility. If one believes one is all right, and others are all wrong, and tries to persuade others to accept one’s views, one is certainly not pursuing intellectual inquiry. In fact this is exactly the opposite of intellectual inquiry. For this reason, academic freedom does not include the freedom to spread political propaganda. Removing political propaganda from Hong Kong’s public libraries is consistent with academic freedom.

Too many academics pay only lip service to academic freedom. Academic freedom, as I maintain, is predicated on humility. Based on ideological grounds, some people argue that there is no rule of law without democracy — in particular universal suffrage and multiparty politics. But the evidence does not support this. So this is political propaganda. In many democracies, the rule of law is weak, and corruption is rampant. China is often regarded as not a democracy. But Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2019 released early this year rated China at 80 out of 180 countries and regions, far better than Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines. China’s world rankings in criminal justice and in civil justice, according to the World Justice Project 2020, likewise, stand at 62 and 64 out of 128. For absence of corruption, World Justice Project 2020 ranked China at 51 out of 128.

Students need to respect the lawful rights of other fellow citizens and should never infringe their rights in the name of “offending the law to achieve justice”

The Hon Ip Kin-yuen is a legislator in the education functional constituency. He says that the Education Bureau should be more open-minded and should allow students and teachers to express their beliefs through singing such songs as Glory to Hong Kong and forming human chains. He says that disallowing political groups to infiltrate school campuses is right, but suppressing expressions would contravene the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by the UN General Assembly and went into force on Sept 2, 1990. 

I took a good look at the articles under the convention, and found that although Article 13 does protect children’s right to freedom of expression, the article also says that the exercise of this right may be subject to certain restrictions, such as provided by law and are necessary (a) for respect of the rights or reputations of others; or (b) for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.

As an educator and a free thinker, I certainly will not suppress students’ questions. I would allow critical views of the government or the political system of any country. The bottom line is that critics should be open-minded, listen to and examine the argument of those who disagree with them with humility, and accept the possibility that they can be mistaken. Intellectual inquiry does not allow arrogance.

I think it is unrealistic to try to take politics entirely out of our school campuses. Young minds are naturally curious about politics. Moreover, they will be exposed to politics outside school campuses anyway. For this reason, I actually prefer that teachers allow them to talk about politics. But teachers should encourage students to be critical thinkers and should not take political propaganda at face value. Political propaganda naturally is always dressed up with appealing praises for one ideology and horrible smears for another. They tend to stir up spontaneous emotions rather than encourage critical reasoning. For this reason, the Education Bureau is right in not allowing political propaganda in our schools. 

Since it is no use suppressing views that are critical of the special administrative region government or even China’s political system, I would instead encourage students to speak up and explain why they hold their views. Can they present the evidence and a strong case to back up their belief that the ballot box will bring better governments to serve the people? Teachers must help their students to learn that no one has the monopoly on truth. Since we are all seekers, we need an open dialogue and examine different discourses on what makes a better government.

So instead of singing songs that praise “revolution of the times”, students should learn to have an open mind and learn how politics works in practice in the real world, how different vested interests in ballot box democracies lobby their representatives and manipulate public opinion, how governments in many countries respond to corporate interests and not the man in the street. Students need to respect the lawful rights of other fellow citizens and should never infringe their rights in the name of “offending the law to achieve justice”.

Students need to learn about the real Hong Kong before the 1997 handover. Teachers have the responsibility to help students see things as they are, and should encourage them to contribute what they can to build a better Hong Kong. The new National Security Law will not disallow reasoned criticisms on specific policies in Hong Kong or on the Chinese mainland, but we all need to understand that the world is complicated, and no one should impose his will on others.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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