25 April 2019
The University of Hong Kong is a prime target of Beijing's efforts to "liberate" the territory. Photo: HKU
The University of Hong Kong is a prime target of Beijing's efforts to "liberate" the territory. Photo: HKU

Delay in HKU veep’s appointment bodes ill for local universities

Leung Chun-ying has renewed his political strife in the post-constitutional reform era after paying lip service to economic and livelihood issues. Following his sacking of two cabinet members, he now takes aim at the University of Hong Kong.

We have seen stiff resistance from HKU staff, students and alumni, and the first battle after the Occupy Movement to defend Hong Kong against the Communist Party’s interposition is now on.

HKU council members’ tactics to stonewall the appointment of Johannes Chan Man-mun, former dean of the university’s law school, as vice-president can be seen as a prelude to the party’s move to “liberate” the territory’s universities and intelligentsia, and ultimately to “liberate” Hong Kong.

What happened to the higher education sector during the initial years of the party’s rule since 1949 can help us understand better and withstand the formidable storm that is looming large at local universities.

1. Ideological remolding:

Well before the People’s Liberation Army took over major cities after the Chinese Civil War, the party had mulled systemic works in 1948 and dispatched notices on plans to brainwash scholars and intellectuals through political education programs within its “liberated areas” seized from the Kuomintang.

Back in Hong Kong, Leung unveiled a HK$100 million subsidy plan in this year’s policy address to send local students to the mainland for exchange at least once in the primary and secondary stages.

In March, Executive Council member Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun called on the government to send newly recruited teachers to the mainland for a month of “know-the-country” training as part of the job requirements.

Then we saw a proposal from Ian Holliday, HKU pro-vice chancellor, that all HKU students must go to the mainland for exchange as a graduation prerequisite from 2022.

This string of policies and suggestions is remarkably similar to the party’s ideological remolding initiatives in 1948. I wonder if it is a hint that Hong Kong will be “liberated” soon.

In theory, Hong Kong won’t face its ultimate destiny until 2047 and in the 50 years of transitional period, the progress of integration must be expedited during Leung’s tenure so that many things can be done before the deadline. That explains Leung’s ruthless push. Another guess is that Beijing itself is losing patience so it handpicked Leung, who is both loyal to the party and bellicose towards the opposition, to do the job.

2. Law school is the No. 1 target:

People’s Liberation Army Marshal Ye Jianying (葉劍英) took control of all higher education institutions in Beijing in January 1949 and the first thing Ye did was to alter the curriculum to replace the Kuomintang’s Three Principles of the People with the Communist ideology and Maoism.

Institutes in Shanghai and Guangzhou all went through similar changes after the army entered the two cities in June and October that year. The two most renowned law schools during the Republic of China era, Chaoyang University and Soochow University, were all merged into other institutes. Some other law schools were simply shut down.

In today’s Hong Kong, having arranged a trusted lieutenant to head the HKU council after the incumbent chairman Leong Che-hung retires this November, the Faculty of Law has become the next target that Leung aims to put aright. The faculty has long been besieged by pro-Beijing media for its associate law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s deep involvement in Occupy Central as a co-organizer.

It’s ironical that when implementing all these politically motivated schemes, the government has been crying foul at others’ “politicization” of Chan’s postponed appointment.

3. Grabbing university leadership:

Universities had substantial autonomy and enjoyed genuine academic freedom under the Kuomintang rule, but ever since 1949, the party has stuck its nose in the running of all institutes, from personnel appointments, addition of new faculties and majors, admission of students and financial planning to campus development. Like any sector in China, the party is the real and only boss in higher education.

The nation’s Higher Education Law, promulgated in 1999, stipulates that the appointment of university presidents, deputy presidents and other senior positions must be approved by the government.

Even the most liberal institute on the Chinese soil, the South University of Science and Technology of China, founded in 2011 in Shenzhen with the stated principle of academic autonomy, has a party committee to oversee the work of its president.

The HKU Ordinance, inherited from colonial times, has been a ready vehicle for Leung to steal the absolute command (including financial powers) over the territory’s flagship institute while adhering, as he says, to the ordinance: being the chief executive, he is the chancellor and can appoint council members.

Two decades ago local institutes had fewer professors and lecturers from China, yet today, in some departments, mainlanders may take well over half of the total staff headcount with some already assuming the deanship. Then within the next 10-15 years mainlanders will secure the simple majority status in the local academia.

Many of these people, whose families are left on the mainland, have their political inclinations closely monitored by China’s liaison office. At some critical junctures, as during the selection of the president, for instance, they must do as they are told.

All these bode ill for the prospects of our universities.

Then, as HKU Students’ Union president Billy Fung Jing-en has put it, when peaceful protests and petitions under the current political system are not enough to fight tyranny, students have to resort to more radical means.

Hongkongers may not support Fung and his peers’ action of breaking into the council chamber last week, but most people will surely understand why they did it.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 30.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


HKU President Peter Mathieson (center) and Council Chairman Leong Che-hung (left) talk to students who broke into the council chamber last week. Photo: Internet

Former HKU law dean Johannes Chan Man-mun, recommended by the selection committee for the post of vice president, is at the center of the storm. Photo:

Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a member of the HKU Council appointed by Leung Chun-ying, smiles in the presence of the protesting students. Photo: HKEJ

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

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