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Moves are afoot to restructure the Universities Service Center for Chinese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), RFA has learned.

The center’s director Pierre Landry has apparently offered to resign amid plans to “reorganize” the center, according to an internal email seen by RFA’s Cantonese Service and people working at CUHK.

Under the plan for 2021, the center’s data will be integrated into a university-wide digital database managed by the university library, while its academic activities will continue under the aegis of CUHK’s China Research Institute, the email said.

“The appearance may be changing, but its DNA will stay the same,” the email said, adding that there would be no personnel changes as a result of the restructuring.

However, the email also announced that the center’s director Pierre Landry had “offered to resign,” and will be replaced by Zhao Zhiyu, current dean of social sciences, in January.

A CUHK faculty member who asked not to be identified said the restructuring would likely break up the center, and integrate China-related research into existing departments.

The center has been an important source of data and facilitator of academic exchange for global research on China.

Research restrictions feared

Its faculty now fear restrictions on their research activities under the restructuring.

“It seems like the end of an era,” the faculty member said.

The move to restructure comes as the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presides over a crackdown on dissenting opinions in Hong Kong under its draconian national security law, imposed on the city since July 1.

The center, which has been running since the Mao era, is increasingly being seen as a hotbed of “collusion with foreign powers,” a vaguely-worded offense under the new law that can include lobbying activities or social media posts within its scope, based on recent cases.

People familiar with the matter said that the CUHK authorities have received a number of concerned inquiries about the move.

“Now is not the time to be doing this,” one CUHK staff member told RFA.

They said the center has been falsely accused of “collusion with foreign powers” and of spying.

The fact that Chan Kin-man, one of the initiators of the 2014 Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign for fully democratic elections, is a former director, had done little to endear it to Beijing, the staff member said.

National security law

CUHK confirmed the plan to restructure the center, and said claims that they were linked to the national security law were “fictitious rumor.”

“The reorganization of the Universities Service Center for Chinese Studies aims to enhance the center’s existing services and make its collections more widely available to local and international scholars,” the university said in an emailed response.

“The reorganization plan includes digitizing its collections and opening them to scholars from all over the world,” it said.

Jin Zhong, chief editor of Hong Kong’s Open Magazine, said the restructuring was likely linked to the national security crackdown, however.

“This has something to do with the overall political climate right now in Hong Kong, especially since the national security law took effect, and the prosecutions of Jimmy Lai and a large number of protest leaders,” Jin told RFA.

“It’s a very unwise move for Beijing to deal with a research facility at CUHK in this way,” he said. “The center has had no involvement in any of the political movements of recent years, not the student movement, the pro-democracy movement, Occupy Central or [last year’s] anti-extradition movement.”

“They only deal in academic material, and only in objective material at that,” he said, adding that the center had always been very cautious about political involvement in the past.

Reported by Gigi Lee and Cheng Yut Yiu for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

Originally published by Radio Free Asia.