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Will Taiwanese academics be targeted by the Hong Kong National Security Law?

A photo of Academia Sinica's main entrance. Image via Wikicommons, Lysimachi (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This post first appeared in the online magazine New Bloom on January 30, 2022. This edited version is being republished on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.

Taiwanese academic Wu Rwei-Ren has been accused by pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong earlier this month of violating the Hong Kong national security law that was passed in June 2020. The law targets what it considers  as acts of separatism or sedition,  and was passed by China’s National People’s Congress, circumventing the Hong Kong legislative council. Wu is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

Wu was targeted for publishing the article “For an Unfinished Revolution” which discussed activists’ work during the 2019 anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong. The article was published in The Reporter, one of Taiwan’s leading investigative media outlets, and won an award from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong. This subsequently led to a denunciation from the pro-Beijing newspaper, the Ta Kung Pao. 

Wu, a political scientist by training, is something of an academic superstar in Taiwan and is frequently known for his participation in political events. To this extent, Wu is one of Taiwan’s leading radical thinkers, as an anarchist theorist of nationalism. 

Wu Rwei-Ren. Photo via Wikicommons, Kokuyo (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Wu is portrayed of supporting Taiwanese independence, which is not incorrect. Yet targeting Wu for his outspoken political statements is symbolic, if anything. Wu has been blocked from travelling to Hong Kong in the past, meaning it is unlikely he would try to enter China or Hong Kong anytime soon. In this sense, though the Hong Kong national security law applies globally, there is little way for the Chinese government to enforce it overseas.

In comments, Wu downplayed his importance, while highlighting past incidents in which he had to receive security protection because of Chinese threats. Furthermore, Wu brought up the fact that the Hong Kong national security law was originally framed as not being retroactive, yet that the application of the law has been in fact been applied retroactively,  cracking down on activists who have sought to defend Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms. 

Wu is not the only academic targeted in recent times regarding their stances on Hong Kong. In November 2020, Lee Ching-Kwan, the director of the Global China Center at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, came under scrutiny from pro-Beijing newspapers such as the Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po. This took place because of her comments in which she stated that “Hong Kong belongs to the world”, which were framed by the newspapers as pro-independence and in violation of the national security law. 

Actions by pro-Beijing newspapers targeting academics are likely intended to halt academic and media discourse in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, for individuals who are not from Hong Kong, it is unlikely that they would be put in the direct line of fire the way that Hongkongers are. 

The People's Liberation Army's Hong Kong garrison. Photo by ExploringLife via Wikicommons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A similar thing happened when the Chinese government declared measures against Taiwanese independence advocates last year, Given the impossibility of targeting all individuals supportive of Taiwanese independence, the Chinese government declared a ban on several prominent DPP (Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party) politicians such as Premier Su Tseng-chang, Legislative Yuan president Yu Shyi-kun, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu, as well as a ban for them and their relatives to conduct business in China. 

It is currently unclear whether the Chinese government might target Taiwanese living in Hong Kong in order to make examples of them. There has been precedents of kidnapping of Taiwanese in China due to their political views or past activism, the most famous case being human rights NGO worker Lee Ming-che. 

In the meantime, the human rights situation in Hong Kong seems set to further deteriorate with Major General Peng Jingtang named as the commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong garrison. Peng served before as the chief of staff in Xinjiang province, and is the highest-ranking official named to the position. 

The Chinese government frequently considers the issues of Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang, as related because of the implicit call for independence. Clearly, Peng's appointment in Hong Kong is a sign that the message is intimidation, given that in Xinjiang, over a million Uyghurs are detained in camps because of their religion. The Chinese government claims that separatist forces in Xinjiang are working with foreign actors to try and undermine China, an accusation they extend to Hong Kong as well.

This transfer of personnel occurs shortly after unprecedented media crackdowns have resulted in the shutting down of online news platform Stand News, with current and former board members arrested. This goes to show that political crackdowns in Hong Kong are likely to continue. 

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