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She studies 'sensitive topics' in Chinese history. Hong Kong denied her work visa

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Hong Kong, the jailing of pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians in recent years has made headlines. But the space for free speech has shrunk across the board, including in the city's universities. NPR's John Ruwitch has this story of the end of one professor's career in the city.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Rowena He was just a teenager when this happened in June of 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SCOTT SIMON: I'm Scott Simon. The developing story of the day is that Chinese troops have opened fire on some of the tens of thousands of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Today is Saturday, June 3, 1989.

RUWITCH: He was not in Beijing on that chaotic night, but she had taken part in the protests in her hometown of Guangzhou in southern China. And the experience would shape her life, even if she didn't know it at the time.

ROWENA HE: I think the shadow of June 4, 1989 was always following me.

RUWITCH: It followed her to college and lingered in the background as she worked in finance for a few years.

HE: After 1989, just like anyone else, I learned to lie in order to survive.

RUWITCH: But when the chance came almost a decade later, she emigrated to Canada. She enrolled in graduate school and became an expert in modern Chinese history. The 1989 protests and exiled dissident community - taboo topics inside mainland China - are her specialty and her passion.

HE: I think I made a commitment with those people, my generation, on - sorry, give me a moment. I think that I promised them, I'm going to keep your silenced voices heard. I would regain those voices that were so violently silenced in 1989.

RUWITCH: After teaching stints at Harvard, Wellesley and Saint Michael's College, she had the opportunity to move again - this time, closer to home. She joined the history department at one of Hong Kong's most prestigious institutions, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It was the summer of 2019, and this was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

RUWITCH: A rash of huge and, at times, violent anti-government protests were shaking the former British colony. He says she did not take part in the demonstrations, but she supported her students who were involved.

HE: I know that, at that time, everyone was willing to die for freedom and all of these things. But as someone who studied Tiananmen, who survived 1989, I do not want that to happen.

RUWITCH: In mid-2020, with the pandemic raging, Beijing tightened the noose, imposing a tough national security law on Hong Kong. Activists and pro-democracy politicians were jailed. He kept teaching, though, and stayed close to her students. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California, Irvine, says in pre-national security law Hong Kong, nobody would have thought twice of her decision.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It used to be that people who were really top scholars in institutions in other places doing cutting-edge work on sensitive subjects related to China would take up jobs at Hong Kong universities.

RUWITCH: But the ground was shifting. Last July, while waiting for her Hong Kong work visa to be renewed, she left for Texas for a fellowship, but the visa never came. She got a rejection letter in late October. And as a result, her university terminated her contract. The Hong Kong government insists that immigration decisions are made in accordance with the law, but Wasserstrom says it's part of a gradual process by the Communist Party and its stewards in Hong Kong to rid the city's universities of critics.

WASSERSTROM: Each time something like this happens, it will make people think twice about applying for jobs, say, in Chinese history at a Hong Kong university even if they're not doing work on Tiananmen as explicitly.

RUWITCH: A few months ago, Rowena He suspected bad news might be coming, so she asked her students and friends to help pack up her books. In August, a moving company delivered them to her in Austin.

HE: When the driver left, I cried. I probably - I hoped my neighbors wouldn't think I was crazy. I cried really loud. I collapsed. I was thinking, like, this is it. All my connection is now in these boxes.

RUWITCH: For He, being a historian was always personal and political. She says she'll keep teaching even if she's now become one of the exiles that she studies. John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.