Studying With Limited Freedom of Speech: My Semester in Hong Kong

By Charlina Strelow

In 2021, Pres­i­dent Biden offered a safe haven to Hong Kong res­i­dents in the U.S., which allowed them to pro­long their stay for up to 18 months. This year, Biden extend­ed that offer for an addi­tion­al two years, call­ing Hong Kong’s poli­cies a “sig­nif­i­cant ero­sion of human rights and fun­da­men­tal free­doms.” To under­stand these poli­cies bet­ter, here’s a brief look into Hong Kong’s recent history.

In 1997, Hong Kong was hand­ed over or returned (depend­ing on whose nar­ra­tive gets told) to Chi­na by Britain. A treaty signed by both coun­tries includ­ed the right to free­dom of speech, press, and assem­bly. In 2014, when Chi­na want­ed to pass a very non-demo­c­ra­t­ic law in Hong Kong, more than a hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple took to the streets. The demon­stra­tions gained mas­sive glob­al atten­tion as the ‘umbrel­la move­ment’. In 2019, the gov­ern­ment intro­duced anoth­er unpop­u­lar bill, which allowed arrest­ed demon­stra­tors from Hong Kong to be pros­e­cut­ed in Chi­na. This time, near­ly two mil­lion peo­ple, that is almost ¼ of the pop­u­la­tion, demon­strat­ed for democ­ra­cy and against reoc­cur­ring police bru­tal­i­ty dur­ing the protests. They suc­cess­ful­ly pre­vent­ed the bill.

Pho­to cred­it: Hong Kong Protests by Stu­dio Incendo

How­ev­er, in June 2020, amidst the chaos of the Covid pan­dem­ic, Hong Kong silent­ly passed the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Law. Among oth­er things, it crim­i­nal­izes acts such as “under­min­ing the pow­er or author­i­ty of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment” and “pro­mot­ing Hong Kong’s seces­sion from Chi­na.” It opened the door to the arrest and pros­e­cu­tion of many more pro­tes­tors, and for many, the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Law marked the end of every­thing peo­ple were will­ing to fight for, the end of Hong Kong.

But what does being in Hong Kong actu­al­ly feel like now? Do peo­ple seem cau­tious, scared, silent? In 2022, I was lucky to spend four months study­ing in Hong Kong and see for myself. Would any­one dare crit­i­cize the gov­ern­ment at the uni­ver­si­ty? What would the dynam­ics between pro­fes­sors and stu­dents be like?

Before I get to some of my obser­va­tions, I want to be hon­est with you. You can imag­ine why I rarely went up to local stu­dents and direct­ly asked them about cen­sor­ship. It didn’t seem fair (let alone polite) to treat their polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion as a thrilling lit­tle anec­dote for me to bring home – while they are the ones risk­ing their safety.

So let me begin with my class “The Press and Pub­lic Opin­ion in Chi­na: Past, Present and Future.” It was the class I was most curi­ous about. To my sur­prise, one of the main top­ics was activist jour­nal­ists. They’re known for their hands-on approach (e.g., attend­ing protests) and report­ing on non-tra­di­tion­al out­lets like social media. Each group in class had to present a case study in which a company’s or politician’s cor­rup­tion in Chi­na was uncov­ered by an activist jour­nal­ist. We talked freely about their impor­tance and ways in which soci­ety could sup­port them. In my group’s pre­sen­ta­tion, I specif­i­cal­ly crit­i­cized China’s media manip­u­la­tion. I felt ner­vous and bold at the same time. Min­utes lat­er, these feel­ings seemed quite ridicu­lous. No one looked both­ered. After all, it was just a class­room. Right? Still, even as a for­eign stu­dent, it felt like the cen­sor­ship was lin­ger­ing in the air at all times. I can’t begin to com­pre­hend how the local stu­dents must feel. In my What­sApp group, one stu­dent warned anoth­er, “There are nation­al secu­ri­ty laws in Hong Kong now, please watch your words.”

My friend attend­ed a course about cul­tur­al land­scapes. One time, she men­tioned the sig­nif­i­cance of city squares as places to gath­er and used Hong Kong’s protests as an exam­ple. She then went on to talk about a pro-democ­ra­cy stat­ue that anoth­er uni­ver­si­ty had tak­en down in 2021. After class, her teacher took her aside. She said she appre­ci­at­ed her active par­tic­i­pa­tion, but my friend’s state­ments endan­gered both of them. This was a great reminder that any­thing I had pre­vi­ous­ly thought about rel­a­tive safe­ty in the class­room was noth­ing but an illusion.

My class “Hong Kong: Past and Present” coin­ci­den­tal­ly stopped right in 1997. The pro­fes­sor had pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished papers about the democ­ra­cy move­ment in Ger­man, his native lan­guage. No one seemed to have noticed or cared. Justin Wong wasn’t as lucky. Wong was also a pro­fes­sor at my uni­ver­si­ty, who had ana­lyzed the movement’s sym­bols. In Jan­u­ary 2023, just two weeks after I had returned home, Wong’s pub­li­ca­tion had alleged­ly been report­ed to the police. He imme­di­ate­ly fled to the U.K. Many Hongkongers (includ­ing the friends I made there) plan to work or study in the U.K.; they have eas­i­er access since Hong Kong used to be under British juris­dic­tion. One of the sym­bols Wong talked about in his pub­li­ca­tion were the masks from the movie V for Vendet­ta. The same sym­bol was also (faint­ly) drawn next to the ele­va­tors in the university’s stu­dent dorms.

I noticed that peo­ple were much more prone (although still care­ful) to crit­i­cize the gov­ern­ment when they specif­i­cal­ly talked about Covid. On more than one occa­sion, stu­dents came up to me and asked why I would choose to go to a coun­try that still enforced such harsh mea­sures. Mul­ti­ple peo­ple stat­ed their dis­like of wear­ing masks. When peo­ple start­ed to demon­strate in Chi­na, my Hongkong friend hoped that the out­come would pos­i­tive­ly affect her city as well. Dis­cussing the Covid restric­tions with local stu­dents gave me a chance to gain more insight into oth­er top­ics such as sur­veil­lance, per­son­al free­dom, or cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences – top­ics that coin­cid­ed with what pro­tes­tors were fight­ing for and what the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Law is try­ing to condemn.

And before we get on our high hors­es, let’s stop to think about free­dom of speech for a minute, which is not only endan­gered in Hong Kong or Chi­na, but, accord­ing to Jacob Mchanga­ma – writer of the 2022 book Free Speech – also at risk in the U.S.

As a Ger­man who has spent time in Hong Kong, I can only hope that peo­ple stay vig­i­lant. Under the wrong cir­cum­stances, free­dom of speech can be threat­ened in the blink of an eye. If you are able to voice your thoughts freely, please keep sup­port­ing those who can’t.

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While Char­li­na likes her major, cul­tur­al stud­ies, as a whole, she’s most pas­sion­ate about lit­er­a­ture. Cur­rent­ly, she’s try­ing to read one book from every coun­try in the world. So far, her favorites are from Turkey, India, and Vietnam.