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A Hong Kong university has fired a university professor who penned a book on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre – discussion of which is banned in China – after she was denied the renewal of her work visa following a denunciation in the Communist Party-backed media.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong's official website described Rowena He, author of Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, as "currently on leave" on Monday.

But university officials told several media organizations that she has been let go after the city's Immigration Department, which doesn't comment on individual cases, rejected her visa renewal application.

He, a Canadian national, had been an associate professor of history at the university since 2019, but is currently in the United States.

She told reporters on Monday that her application for renewal had been repeatedly delayed by the Immigration Department, which had suddenly asked her to answer a number of questions detailing her connections with non-government groups and foreign governments – activities that have been criminalized as "collusion with foreign powers" under Hong Kong's national security law.

While she had cooperated with the enquiries, she heard nothing back for more than a year, until she was informed on Oct. 24 that her application had been rejected, she said.

Fingered for ‘slandering’ China

He's sacking comes after the Beijing-backed Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po newspapers published a commentary calling on the Chinese University of Hong Kong to "eliminate anti-China forces trying to disrupt Hong Kong," naming He for "slandering" China in a politics course she taught at Harvard.

It said the National Humanities Center in the United States, where He has a fellowship, "uses academic freedom as an umbrella term to smear China and Hong Kong," and accused her of "using history as a political weapon to brainwash students" into anti-China and anti-Hong Kong thinking.

In 2014, Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Rowena He published “Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China.” Credit: RFA screenshot

Chung Kim-wah, a former social sciences assistant professor, said such denunciations often precede official action against people and organizations, in what has become a new norm for the city's political life since the post-2019 crackdown on dissent.

"Things have changed now,” Chung said. “Once the Wen Hui Po or Ta Kung Pao have said something, the government responds."

He said the move would likely affect Hong Kong's reputation as a center for academic freedom and home to world-class universities.

"Most of their lecturers are recruited from elsewhere in the world," Chung said. "Who will dare to come [and work] there if that's how you treat them?"

Spillover effect

A senior overseas professor currently working at the same university, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said he had never heard of anyone getting fired before for having their visa rejected, and didn't know if the same thing could happen to him.

Hong Kong political scholar Benson Wong, who once also taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the case clearly involved "political factors."

"If the Hong Kong government cancels the work visas of people it doesn't like, then it won't just be academics who don't come to Hong Kong but foreign business people too," Wong said.

Asked about He's sacking, the Chinese University of Hong Kong said "decisions about visas are the responsibility of the Hong Kong Immigration Department, and the university has no right to interfere."

The Hong Kong government issued a statement without naming He, saying that applicants mustn't pose any criminal threat to Hong Kong, and that the immigration authorities reserve the right to deny anyone a visa even if they meet all criteria for their application.

‘Weaponizing’ judicial system

He's firing came as a U.S. research report said Hong Kong officials have "weaponized" the city's judicial system in recent years to clamp down on dissent and prosecute those who took part in the 2019 pro-democracy movement.

Police have arrested more than 10,000 people and prosecuted nearly 3,000 in the wake of the 2019 protest movement, while more than 80% of those eventually convicted were sent to jail, according to the report by the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.

Hong Kong political scholar Benson Wong says Rowena He’s case clearly involved "political factors." Credit: Isaac Lawrence/AFP file photo

Of those, 195 people have been charged with "unlawful assembly," a broad charge that allows the government to net individuals who haven't engaged in acts of vandalism or violence, it said.

Such cases are characterized by evidence from police that lacks credibility, suggesting "a problem with false testimony by police officers in some cases," the report found.

Protesters typically also face "an exceptionally long" wait before trial, with nearly 42% of cases taking more than a year, while those with the longest wait times have now been waiting for well over two years, it said.

The majority of defendants in protest-related cases are denied bail, while 66% of juvenile defendants were sent to jail.

"This is an extraordinarily high rate of incarceration for children," the report said, adding that sentencing rarely takes the age or mental state of a defendant into account.

It said the government is continuing to charge people, and is clearly "working through a backlog" of protest-related cases, with more prosecutions likely in the pipeline.

‘Long and painful’

Former protester A Man, who gave only a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, said she was arrested for taking part in a peaceful gathering that hadn't been approved by police in 2020, and still doesn't know if her arrest will have repercussions for her down the line.

"They are getting stricter and stricter, and [protesters] are enduring long and painful judicial processes," she said. "This is a form of suppression of young people by the Hong Kong and Chinese governments."

Current affairs commentator Sang Pu said vague charges make it much easier for police to target people at will, and that the issue is likely to get worse when fresh national security laws are passed next year.

"They use the National Security Law, as well as some illiberal colonial-era charges ... under the Crimes Ordinance, and then there's the [future] legislation," Sang said.

Hong Kong leader John Lee vowed in his annual policy address earlier this month to "eradicate the causes of dissent" in the city, which he said still lingers despite a two-and-a-half year crackdown.

Lee said his administration is currently drafting new national security legislation to be passed in 2024, which officials have said will "close loopholes" in the 2020 National Security Law imposed on the city by Beijing.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Gigi Lee and Siyan Cheung for RFA Cantonese.