Is the Dalai Lama a freedom fighter or a separatist or both? Are Chris Patten's democratic reforms right for Hong Kong? Is Tiananmen Square old baggage or a tragedy to be remembered? With Hong Kong's return to China just round the corner, some local scholars are already facing the dilemma of choosing between academic objectivity and political correctness in answering these questions. They must also consider whether to believe law professor Nihal Jayawickrama, who says he lost his job at Hong Kong University last year because he was seen to be politically incorrect. 'I think the university feels it might be better off without me,' Professor Jayawickrama said, 'because I'm not likely to become politically correct after July 1. I don't think I'll change my teaching techniques, and stop writing articles or communicating with the United Nations.' Professor Jayawickrama is chairman of Justice, the Hong Kong section of the Geneva-based human-rights group International Commission of Jurists. He has questioned China's human rights policies and challenged the legal status of the provisional legislature. Hong Kong University rejected his application to extend his appointment beyond the retirement age of 60. He apparently did not meet the requirements either in teaching, research or administration. 'I know it's not true, they know it's not true,' said the professor, who had taught at HKU for 12 years, and who introduced a course in International Law of Human Rights. 'There must have been some other reason.' But not everyone is convinced he lost his job for political reasons. 'If they have to persecute somebody, [democrat] Yeung Sum and I would be the first ones,' said Law Chi-kwong, head of HKU's Department of Social Science and Social Administration and a member of the Democratic Party. Dr Yeung is also a member of his department. 'I haven't seen any self-censorship occurring here, although I won't say it doesn't exist at all. As far as I understand, HKU is a very liberal institution.' Professor Jayawickrama says his suspicions were heightened because not long before he learned of his fate at the university, he received a letter from then vice-chancellor Wang Gungwu inviting him to extend his appointment for another five years. Around that time, the professor says, he was the only person in the law department shortlisted for promotion to reader. Though friends had advised him not to provoke China, he said he continued to test the limits, sometimes venturing into areas widely considered to be political minefields. In one of his classes, for example, Professor Jayawickrama encouraged students to discuss whether Tibet had a valid claim for self-determination, and whether Taiwan had satisfied all the requirements to obtain full membership in the UN. For Beijing, any perceived challenge to its sovereignty over Tibet and Taiwan violates the 'one China' principle. While Mr Law and others may doubt politics had anything to do with the Jayawickrama case, a casual investigation reveals that self-censorship is becoming an issue not just in the world of academia, long considered a bastion of freedom and autonomy. For example, participants in opinion polls have begun hanging up the phone when asked to comment on politically sensitive subjects, according to Lo Shiu-hing, assistant professor at the university's Department of Politics and Public Administration. And a gallery recently advised an art lecturer not to include Taiwanese flags in his paintings of Rennie's Mill, an enclave of Kuomintang supporters that was destroyed last year to make way for a new town. Adding to suspicion that academic independence may suffer in the future is the fact that China picked five university heads for the Preparatory Committee. The autocratic nature of Hong Kong's universities and their dependence on government funding make academics more vulnerable to political pressure. A handful of people at universities in Hong Kong have ultimate power over who will be promoted or sacked, and who gets what, when and how much. How research funding - the lifeline for any scholar - is approved is a mystery even to those working within a university, Mr Lo acknowledges. 'Tertiary institutions in Hong Kong always use academic freedom as a pretext to prevent people from supervising them,' Lingnan College politics lecturer Li Pang-kwong said. 'Having been in this field all these years, I must say that there is too much confusion and injustice within the system. 'It's always possible that individual scholars will shy away from sensitive topics as [the handover] is approaching. But if self-censorship really sets in, chances are it will first take root at the administrative level, which tends to be conservative,' Mr Li said. 'The problem now is that some of them have tried too hard to please the Beijing Government. In this case, academic freedom will be lost before China lays a finger on it.' According to Mr Li, a more transparent university system would be the most effective way to ward off censorship and self-censorship. But for others, the solution is not that simple. 'I don't think there will be academic freedom under the Communist Party,' said Hsieh Jiann, an anthropologist who taught at local universities for 20 years before deciding to leave Hong Kong to uphold his academic principles. 'Self-censorship - it's only a matter of time.' Professor Hsieh is known for his scathing articles on China's policies in Tibet. 'Our universities have many mainland scholars who came here via Britain or the United States. I don't think by staying a few years overseas they can rid themselves of ideologies that have been etched in their minds,' he said. 'I'm not saying they are not professional. I'm just saying they tend not to say things against the Chinese Government.' But still, some Hong Kong academics are optimistic - even Professor Jayawickrama. 'Hong Kong is not Burma. We're not separated from the outside world,' he said. 'Nobody will be successful in restricting academic freedom without arousing great conflict in our society.'