Politics affects all of us, from water supplies to the stock market, so it should not be surprising that politics has affected universities in the city before and after Hong Kong’s handover to China.
The key question is how a university’s council and its leaders stand firm in the face of political intervention, so as to uphold the institution’s academic autonomy.
The ongoing saga of the delay in appointing a pro vice chancellor at the University of Hong Kong indicates that members of the university council, just as outgoing council member Professor Yuen Kwok Yung said, don’t have sufficient experience to play the political game with Beijing.
That means that as HKU loses its autonomy, they can do nothing to stop the change.
Let’s recap what Professor Yuen said in his news conference after resigning from the council on Friday.
Yuen said he doesn’t have the political ability to stay on, as he never received any training in politics and would rather focus on medical research.
He also said Hong Kong has lost its capability to solve problems, when previously it could accommodate different views so as to reach a consensus on public issues.
Yuen said he believes that the change in HKU — and in the whole of Hong Kong — can be dated back to three years ago.
He did not specify what happened then, but it was in 2012 that Leung Chun-ying was elected as the city’s chief executive.
So Yuen was indirectly pointing the finger at Leung for bringing politics into HKU.
While Yuen’s comment is fair enough, it’s quite clear that HKU has been subjected to political intervention after the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
For example, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa’s attempt in 2000 to put pressure on the HKU public opinion program to stop its surveys of public perceptions of the chief executive caused a scandal that resulted in the resignation of then vice chancellor Cheng Yiu-chung.
On Aug. 18, 2011, Li Keqiang, who was then vice premier, was seated in the chancellor’s chair, a symbol of the highest authority in the university, during HKU’s graduation ceremony.
The unprecedented arrangement, which showed the extent to which the university was prepared to bend over backward to please Beijing, prompted students to demonstrated outside the venue.
It was clearly a tipping point for HKU.
Tsui Lap-chee, the then vice chancellor, decided not to seek reappointment after his term ended last year, which was interpreted as him taking responsibility for the incident.
So, two vice chancellors suffered unhappy endings in HKU’s brushes with external politics.
In the case of the pro vice chancellor’s empty seat, the appointment process is a well-stablished one that the HKU council has always respected.
This is the first time it is being subverted by external forces.
Any compromise on the process would indicate they have succeeded in intervening in the university’s affairs, thereby undermining its autonomy.
That’s the reason why Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, widely understood to be the search committee’s choice for pro vice chancellor, said he won’t give up his candidacy for the post, because if he did so, he would be giving up on academic freedom and the university’s autonomy.
Chan said this would create a chilling effect on the university community.
He said it’s hard to believe there’s no political motivation behind the council’s decision to defer his appointment.
He also warned that if academic freedom is undermined, it could affect HKU’s ability to attract and keep talented people.
Professor Lo Chung-mau, who fell to the ground after students stormed into the room where the council was meeting last week, claiming he had been attacked, said later that there are two powerful political forces that are trying to affect the decision of the university’s governing body.
Lo stressed that the university is an academic institution and should be free from any political interference.
Now, Yuen’s resignation from council has helped to make the public aware of how serious the matter is.
As both Chan and Lo share the same view that HKU should be free from any political interference, why don’t other council members tender their resignations to demonstrate their solidarity in upholding the autonomy of HKU?
Are they brave enough to do so?
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