SOAS lecturers told to wipe references to Hong Kong and China

SOAS’ decision follows Hong Kong’s June 2020 security law, which puts academics at risk of imprisonment

SOAS has instructed academics not to record lectures or seminar discussions to avoid the risk of staff being arrested when visiting Hong Kong or China.

In June 2020, Hong Kong introduced a new security law that facilitates the act of punishing individuals who protest both inside and outside the territory. The law criminalises any act of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign or external forces.

As a result of this law, SOAS believes that academics are at risk of being arrested and jailed for carrying lecture notes or laptops containing their work when travelling to those areas.

Due to the vagueness of what constitutes subversion, a wide range of topics are potentially “off-limits.” Many of these topics “lie at the heart of the social sciences and humanities”, meaning that teaching materials used for such subjects may be used as evidence of a violation of the security law.

The China Research Group, set up to monitor the challenges and opportunities associated with China, warns that the law is not restricted to Hong Kong residents or activities in the region. In an interview with The Times, Neil O’Brien, a CRG member, said:

“This shows the incredible reach of new repressive laws in China — students in London are being advised they could be arrested on the basis of their lecture notes if passing through Hong Kong.

“We have seen how Beijing tries to stifle criticism in democratic countries including their recent decision to sanction MPs, academics and lawyers here.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg — through funding agreements and partnerships with UK universities, Beijing can gain a lot of influence on our universities and I worry this is already having a stifling effect on lectures and tutorials happening in the UK.”

SOAS’ guidance has identified five areas of risk: teaching materials, staff travelling to Hong Kong or China, students travelling to Hong Kong or China, employing research assistants based in these areas, and the threat from collaboration with colleagues based in Hong Kong or China who “may not have a choice if they are asked to collaborate an investigation against their foreign partners”.

In a statement on the matter, SOAS highlighted their duty of care to students and staff saying:

“Computers which colleagues use on a regular basis may include information about students who may have said or written something that can be deemed to have violated the Hong Kong National Security Law.

“Since this law is so stringent and has extra-territorial applicability, our duty of care to our students from Hong Kong and Mainland China requires us to make sure that computers that staff may carry with them to HK and Mainland China do not contain information that can potentially land our students into trouble with this law.

“The risk of this happening is low, but if only one of our current or former students ends up being caught out by the National Security Law because of an action or an inaction on our part, it falls below the standards we uphold at SOAS.”