19 April 2019
The governance structure of Cambridge University (left) shields it against external interference, but HKU (right) may soon be degraded to the status of its mainland counterparts, all of which are led by the Communist Party. Photos: Frank Chen
The governance structure of Cambridge University (left) shields it against external interference, but HKU (right) may soon be degraded to the status of its mainland counterparts, all of which are led by the Communist Party. Photos: Frank Chen

The chief executive may lie, but the father does not

In China, revolution is all about conspiracies to take over the leadership.

Many incidents in history, up to the present day, bear this hallmark – from the mainland’s decade-long Cultural Revolution to President Xi Jinping’s unfolding Cultural Revolution-like anticorruption purge to the recent hail of smears against the University of Hong Kong.

Interestingly, the Cultural Revolution started with Mao Zedong’s denunciation in 1966 of the Ministry of Culture for its failure to promote communist thoughts.

In Hong Kong, where the government and Beijing lackeys want to relegate the “one country, two systems” principle to one that exists only in name, the intelligentsia are once again a convenient target.

HKU, from its president, deans and professors to its students, has come under fire.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying can indeed remold HKU and turn it upside down while adhering, as he says, to the University of Hong Kong Ordinance, inherited from colonial times.

The ordinance — drafted to ensure the colonial authorities’ control of the institution — stipulates that the governor (now the chief executive) of Hong Kong shall be the chancellor with the authority to appoint the majority of council members.

In the late colonial era, the authorities’ policies generally reflected people’s aspirations, and so such clauses didn’t cause too much complaint.

Yet, since Leung took office, the ordinance has become a ready-to-hand means to meddle in HKU affairs when he needs to tame the city’s flagship tertiary institution, members of which were at the forefront throughout last year’s pro-democracy protests.

Last week, Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, the former dean of the faculty of law, who had been attacked by local pro-Beijing newspapers, asked whether Hong Kong’s chief executive may have excessive power over institutions of higher learning.

It may help us gain some insight into the present skirmish to take a look at how the ordinances and governance of western universities differ from HKU’s.

Cambridge, Oxford and the University of London are British institutions typically used for such a comparison. Among them, I am most familiar with the University of Cambridge.

The university has a 1,047-page constitutional document called the Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge, which stipulates that the powers of governance rest with the chancellor, the vice-chancellor, the senate, the Regent House and the council.

The chancellor — Cambridge’s chief officer — is elected by all members of the senate in a “one person, one vote” system, and anyone can run for the top post.

There are two methods to nominate a candidate: either via a nomination body comprising all council members and 16 senate members or through a joint recommendation by any 50 senate members.

Perhaps Hongkongers can take a leaf from Cambridge’s practice, which combines both a nomination panel and “civil nomination”, when debating how the chief executive should be elected in 2017.

Cambridge’s chancellor from 1976 to 2011 was Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth, and the incumbent is David Sainsbury, a successful businessman.

Despite the chancellor’s supreme status within the hierarchy, he or she does not have any concrete power except for a unique role in knitting together the entire university community.

The senate is responsible only for electing the chancellor and the high steward, a deputy who may act as the top officer if there is a vacancy in the chancellorship.

The vice-chancellor is the university’s principal academic and administrative officer, or president.

A consultation group will first recommend a list of candidates for vice-chancellor to the council for its official nomination and endorsement, and the Regent House will then officially appointed the winning candidate for a term of five years.

The council is the supreme policy-making body, with a wide range of powers over academic administration, finance and development. It is chaired by the vice-chancellor, and its members include the chancellor, heads of colleges, professors, student representatives and four outside members appointed by the Regent House.

The Regent House is Cambridge’s governing body, with a unique constitutional role to review and approve reports including annual reports on the vice-chancellor’s work. It consists of most of the university’s academic and academic-related staff and has more than 3,800 members.

One can see that Cambridge is a highly independent entity, and its governance structure is a shield against external interference.

Cambridge’s chancellor is largely ceremonial and can be chosen through “civil nomination”.

The vice-chancellor chairs the council with comprehensive powers, but there are checks and balances from other council members to ensure that Cambridge is governed collectively by the members of its community, especially its professors.

These are common features of many top-notch universities worldwide.

What about HKU?

Its court, chaired by the city’s chief executive, is the supreme advisory and legislative body, with almost half of its 112 members from outside the university. The chief executive can make direct appointments to the court.

HKU’s council is the top governing body, with authority in finance, development and human resources. Its chairman is appointed by the chief executive (the incumbent, Dr. Leong Che-hung, was appointed by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen), and two thirds of its members are external consultants.

The senate is HKU’s academic authority and is chaired by vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson.

In this sense, HKU’s vice-chancellor has limited powers, as he is merely a member of the court and the council and has little say in financial affairs, while the chief executive may be the one who really runs the university.

These arrangements have paved the way for Leung to replace “unpatriotic” and less obedient members with his loyalists and to pull the strings of HKU’s daily operations.

Academic freedom and administrative independence are, therefore, obliterated.

The storm looming over HKU will surely come to other tertiary institutions, as the chief executive is the chancellor of all Hong Kong’s public universities.

Leung has laid bare his objective, and I foresee that, within a decade or two, local institutions will be drastically downgraded to the status of their mainland counterparts.

So, how is a mainland university governed?

Peking University’s ordinance best answers this question: the university’s Communist Party committee is the only governing body.

On top of its authority over finance, development, reform and ideological education, it has the power to appoint key officers and supervise the students’ union, the staff union, the labor union and other associations.

Beida’s president and vice-presidents work under the leadership of the university’s party secretary, who is normally the chairman of the council.

Surely no one will laud Peking U’s governance structure, which is basically the same as at all other mainland universities.

But that will be exactly the model for HKU in future.

The irony is that, while destroying HKU’s independence and subsidizing exchange programs for students to the mainland, Leung and the city’s other principal officials continue to send their children to Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and so on.

They have gone so far as to ask their kids to make friends and develop relationships only with graduates from such institutions.

[Editor’s note: Leung’s daughter, Leung Chai-yan -- who has just suspended her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science -- hinted in a television interview that her father has asked her to socialize only with people who graduated from renowned western universities.]

So, here is the truth: the chief executive may lie, but the father does not.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 16.

Translation by Frank Chen

– Contact us at [email protected]


Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe