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Canadian-Chinese scholar Rowena He was abruptly fired by the Chinese University of Hong Kong after she was denied an extension to her employment visa.Supplied

When Canadian-Chinese scholar Rowena He arrived in Hong Kong in 2019, the city was in the midst of widespread anti-government unrest that many compared to the pro-democracy protests of 1989 in China, which she took part in as a teenager and has made the focus of her academic career.

In the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre that June 4, the pro-democracy movement was heavily suppressed, and Hong Kong became the only place on Chinese soil where the events of 1989 could be freely discussed and memorialized.

After the 2019 Hong Kong protests and subsequent crackdown, this changed dramatically. The annual candlelit vigil in Victoria Park was banned, a museum dedicated to the 1989 protests was closed, and books about the demonstrations and massacre were pulled from library shelves, including one written by Prof. He.

Last week, Prof. He was herself barred from Hong Kong, denied an extension to her employment visa by the city’s immigration authorities and abruptly sacked by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). In an interview, she described the news as predictable “but still shocking.”

A spokeswoman for CUHK, Sophie Pang, said Prof. He’s employment was dependent on her having a valid visa, a matter for the government.

Hong Kong’s Immigration Department did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada, Marilyne Guevremont, said she could not comment on individual cases but expressed Ottawa’s concern “over the continued erosion of Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and autonomy, including academic freedom.”

Writing on social media, Sophie Richardson, a former China director at Human Rights Watch, described Prof. He as “an extraordinary scholar-teacher” whose forced departure was “further evidence of Chinese government censorship and revisionism in academia” in Hong Kong.

Born in Guangdong province in southern China, Rowena He was one of millions of young people who took part in pro-democracy protests in 1989.

“People talk about Tiananmen as a revolution, that we were trying to overthrow the government, but 1989 was not about that,” Prof. He told The Globe and Mail. “We took to the streets because we had hope and faith and trust that the government would reform itself, and we were punished by the very system that instilled in us the value of sacrificing for the country.”

After graduating from a university in China, she moved to Canada in 1998 and later entered a master’s program at the University of Toronto. She stayed on at U of T for a doctorate and eventually became a Canadian citizen. In 2014, while a lecturer at Harvard University, Prof. He published the widely praised Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China.

Four years later, Prof. He was offered a position at CUHK. One of the oldest universities in Asia, CUHK has a long history of student activism, something that came to the fore during the 2019 unrest. Earlier, students successfully fought to erect a replica of the Goddess of Democracy, a statue that had been the centrepiece of the Tiananmen protests.

Prof. He was completing a fellowship at Princeton, so did not arrive in Hong Kong until 2019, “right in the midst of the social movement.” After the government introduced a draconian national security law the following year, many students began asking Prof. He if they could still write freely about various issues. She insisted they must and said she would ensure they were protected by sealing their papers off from public view and destroying them at the end of the course.

But as the post-2020 crackdown continued, Tiananmen became the taboo subject it had long been in mainland China. In December, 2021, the iconic Pillar of Shame memorial was removed from the campus of Hong Kong University after a months-long fight to protect it. Days later, in the early hours of Christmas Eve, the Goddess of Democracy was similarly ejected from CUHK.

“You can’t help but feel a strong sense of helplessness, that all your efforts to keep that history and memory alive were defeated,” Prof. He said.

In 2022, she put in for a routine visa renewal, her second. The process dragged on for so long that Prof. He eventually had to ask for special permission to leave Hong Kong while her visa was pending in order to take up a year-long fellowship in the United States, for which she had been nominated by CUHK.

As it came time to return to Hong Kong, she still did not have a visa and began a peripatetic existence, moving between various temporary accommodations, like many of the exiles she had written about. Finally, last week, she was told her application had been denied. CUHK terminated her employment “with immediate effect.”

Prof. He has secured a temporary research position at the University of Texas at Austin and, in many ways, will be freer to write about China and Tiananmen than she ever could be in Hong Kong. But she said leaving has still been “very difficult.”

“It was such a precious experience to be in Hong Kong,” she said. “How sad it is that it has come to this.”

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