28 October 2016
University council member Arthur Li (left photo) reacts to students demanding academic freedom. Lo Chung-mau's attempt at heroism (right) becomes an embarrassment.. Photos: HKEJ
University council member Arthur Li (left photo) reacts to students demanding academic freedom. Lo Chung-mau's attempt at heroism (right) becomes an embarrassment.. Photos: HKEJ

Who’s attacking whom at Hong Kong University?

Despite the smoke screens and the background noise, let’s be very clear about one thing: what’s happening at Hong Kong University is a frontal attack on an institution that in many ways embodies the freedoms and way of life that make this place special.

Only the willfully blind have not realized that the attempts to block the appointment of Johannes Chan as a pro vice chancellor are a direct consequence of the chief executive’s determination to punish anyone associated with the Umbrella Movement protests.

Professor Chan was neither an organizer nor a prominent participant in this movement but his “crime” is to be associated with Benny Tai, who was both of these things.

Thus, the CE is following the ghastly tradition of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution where accusations of “guilt by association” were commonplace.

Professor Chan is quite right to stress that the furor over the blocking of his appointment is not principally a personal matter but concerns fundamental issues relating to the future of Hong Kong.

It is no coincidence that universities often find themselves in the forefront of battles to protect liberty, not least because they are custodians of a tradition of free speech and free thought.

It is also no coincidence that they also attract some of the brightest and best young people who have yet to have idealism drummed out of their systems.

The Chinese Communist Party has a long awkward history in its relations with universities. On the one hand, in pre-revolutionary times, they were recruiting grounds for the communists.

Many students joined the party but, unlike the communist experience in Europe, pre-revolutionary universities were sparsely populated with Marxist professors.

This fact alone made them subjects of suspicion.

After the revolution, the universities were purged and purged again.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, they more or less ceased to function and their libraries were burned.

Fast forward to today and we find that conformity, timidity and an extensive network of control mechanisms are the hallmarks of academic life in China.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with Hong Kong where universities remain free and vibrant?

The answer is in the question because the people who run Hong Kong are determined to change this situation.

However, they know it is a long process so they have to start by sending out clear warning signals of what happens to academics that step out of line.

Anyone who believes it will stop there is an idiot because the anti-democrats have more far fundamental plans for diminishing the autonomy and freedom of universities.

This brings us to the specific circumstances of what is happening right now at HKU.

When the university council was forced to reconvene by public pressure and discuss Professor Chan’s appointment this week, the authorities were keen to portray a picture of the university being in a state of siege.

Contrary to established practice hordes of police were drafted onto the campus.

We now know that council members have been under pressure both from the CE’s office and, more importantly, from the Central Government’s Liaison Office to block Professor Chan’s appointment.

And when the pressure worked on Tuesday evening and yet more feeble excuses prompted yet another decision to delay this appointment, it was perhaps inevitable that impetuous students would foolishly (and counter-productively) attempt something more than passive protest.

Although the consequences have been painted in vivid colors, they actually did no more than burst into the council chamber.

At this point, and in the worst traditions of Italian football, one of the government’s supporters decided to up the ante by keeling over, allegedly after being attacked.

Unfortunately for Lo Chung-mau, his “heroism” was captured on a video recording that shows no evidence of this “attack”.

After this emerged, Dr. Lo denied ever alleging that students attacked him.

However, in the spirit of never letting the facts stand in the way of a good story, this incident provided just what the anti-democrat media was looking for in order to denounce the protests.

The communist press, which evidently has had the irony gene removed from its DNA, went one step further to make accusations of “Cultural Revolution-type behavior”. 

The truth is that standing up to the bullying in the university is necessary and those who make facile attempts to pretend that this is some arcane academic dispute serve only to highlight their own stupidity.

Hong Kong’s enemies dress up in all kinds of garb but the most alarming are those who claim not just to be friends but so called “loyalists” whose version of loyalty most certainly does not extend to a defense of our freedoms and way of life.

Fortunately, there are a great many other Hong Kong people whose loyalty to Hong Kong centers around preserving a unique way of life that has freedom at its core.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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