19 October 2019
To protect academic freedoms, it may be necessary to amend the legislation governing universities. Credit:
To protect academic freedoms, it may be necessary to amend the legislation governing universities. Credit:

A nail in the coffin for HK academic freedom

Academic freedom is the foundation of intellectual discovery. Scholars and students should be free to teach, learn, critique and receive support for their work without interference from anyone on or off campus.

Here in Hong Kong, it is supposedly guaranteed under Article 137 of the Basic Law, which states that “educational institutions of all kinds may retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom”.

I say “supposedly” because time and time again, we have learned that when it comes to Hong Kong (and other matters), Beijing’s guarantees are merely empty promises.

Reality has shown us that since the 1997 handover, academic freedom has been under threat. We saw this in 2000 when University of Hong Kong (HKU) pollster Robert Chung was pressured to put an end to his public opinion polls on the popularity of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and his government.

It happened again in 2007 when ex-education secretary Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and his sidekick, former permanent secretary Fanny Law, were under investigation for allegedly putting pressure on the Hong Kong Institute of Education to merge with Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Li also reportedly threatened to “rape” the institution if it refused to toe the line. Li’s notoriety for his heavy-handed style earned him the nickname “King Arthur” and that nickname still sticks with Li today.

There is no doubt that the intensity of these attacks on academic freedom has increased over time, so much so that the British government expressed its concerns about education in Hong Kong being used as a political tool.

In his most recent six-monthly reports on Hong Kong, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond felt compelled to highlight the demise of academic freedom in the city. Hammond also raised the issue of the University of Hong Kong’s constant foot-dragging over Johannes Chan’s appointment as one of its pro-vice chancellors, among other instances where upon academic freedom has been intruded.

The university’s continued reluctance to give Chan the job – a post for which he was recommended – has cast a dark shadow over academic freedom and freedom of expression and it’s easy to see why. If you just look at his resume, on top of his 12-year-deanship at the Law Faculty, Chan ticks all the boxes for being a pro-vice chancellor of the university.

The only thing that’s holding Chan back is Beijing’s disdain towards him. The pro-Communist newspapers – whether it’s People’s Daily or Wen Wei Po — had no hesitation pouring scorn on the law professor, particularly over his ties with Occupy Central co-founder and colleague Benny Tai.

Sure, Beijing doesn’t directly appoint academics for Hong Kong’s tertiary institutions. In the case of HKU, the university’s Council is tasked with appointing senior management and senior academics such as deans. The Council, in itself, is a reflection of the cozy relationship between the government and council members at the expense of academic freedom.

Many of HKU’s Council members were directly appointed by Chief Executive CY Leung in his capacity as the Chancellor of the University. From what the public has seen in terms of how the Council has handled Johannes Chan’s appointment, it is obvious these council members have also taken on the role of de facto political foot soldiers.

It is also striking to see that Arthur Li was plucked out of political obscurity by CY Leung, following his appointment to the Executive Council shortly after Leung’s 2012 anointment as Chief Executive. Perhaps this political lifeline was a trade-off, given that Li nominated Leung in the Chief Executive Election.

For the past six months, Li has also become Leung’s eyes and ears in HKU. “King Arthur” has no hesitation throwing his weight around as though he is the one calling the shots in the Council and being openly critical of Chan and his supporters.

This is in stark contrast to the approach taken by outgoing chairman Leong Che-hung, who appears to be sheepishly taking a back seat as he watches the controversy play out until his term ends in November.

It is expected that the Council and its backers will hit back against this notion as a mere conspiracy theory. But the fact of the matter is that there are way too many “coincidences” when it comes to delaying Johannes Chan’s appointment. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this pattern has led to the impasse we’re still seeing today.

While rumors are rife that King Arthur will take over from Leong as Council chairman, it’s unlikely that this impasse will end any time soon.

Earlier this month, the University of Hong Kong alumni voted overwhelmingly to remove the legal provision that assigns the role of Chancellor to the Chief Executive.

Chinese University’s Vice-Chancellor Joseph Sung shot that idea down last week, on the grounds that this is a “tradition” which has been around for many years.

Sung is right in saying this is a tradition that has been around for decades. During the pre-handover days, it was the governor who had the prerogative to be chancellor of all universities in Hong Kong.

But there is one key difference that Sung and others on the defensive have failed to mention – the British were answerable to a democratically-elected government in London which ensured that these powers were not abused.

Since the 1997 handover, the legislative framework for these powers hasn’t changed, aside from the fact that the words “chief executive” have replaced the word “governor”.

In a democracy, the scale of the abuse against academic freedom that we’re witnessing would not be happening. That aside, unlike previous leaders, whether pre-colonial or post-colonial, CY Leung has taken the abuse to a whole new level.

Under his governance, Leung has managed to turn his powers into a system of personal patronage and utilized education as yet another political tool.

Just months after becoming chief executive, Leung appointed businessman and mainland advisor Herman Hu Shao-ming as the council chairman for the City University of Hong Kong – a position which Leung himself held before he became the SAR’s leader.

Hu had nominated Leung in the 2012 Chief Executive Election and he was re-appointed earlier this year by the chief executive for another three years, presumably as a reward for his loyalty.

Incidentally, there is no legal provision anywhere for removing or even complaining against Hong Kong’s university council chairman, all of whom are directly and unaccountably appointed by the Chief Executive.

It’s not the first time Leung has got his hands dirty in terms of academic interference. His disdain for academic freedom was clearly evident when he interfered in the academic process, ensuring that a failed student from the mainland who had been terminated on academic grounds was awarded a PhD for the exact same work which the academics had rejected.

In fact, City University staff recall the times when Leung acted like a tyrant to those who stood in his way. Leung also made sure the City University’s Staff Association would go through hell. Among various “punishments”, Leung ordered that the Staff Association’s office on campus be repossessed, and instructed that its members be sent a litany of legal letters, paid for by Hong Kong taxpayers.

It comes as no surprise that when the Staff Association conducted a poll on Leung’s performance as Council chairman he scored 0.86 out of 10.

It’s cases like these and Johannes Chan’s delayed appointment that demonstrate the fact that CY Leung has no interest or respect for procedures or rules unless he is the one who sets the rules of the game.

One solution to put an end to the abuse of academic freedom in Hong Kong is to amend the legislation governing universities, by stripping the chief executive of his powers – as suggested by HKU alumni.

But, in the case of Leung, he would probably find other ways of wielding his whip. The other option is to ensure that the chief executive is elected through genuine democracy, which would bring with it the requisite checks and balances that prevent such abuses in the first place.

The sad reality is that unless something happens soon, the future of academic freedom in Hong Kong is bleak. Certainly, while CY Leung remains chief executive, there is no hope of salvaging what’s left of academic freedom. This is, unfortunately, yet another nail in the coffin for academic freedom.

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EJ Insight contributor