22 October 2019
The HKU governing council has voted against a recommendation to appoint former law dean Johannes Chan as pro vice chancellor. Photos: Reuters, HKEJ
The HKU governing council has voted against a recommendation to appoint former law dean Johannes Chan as pro vice chancellor. Photos: Reuters, HKEJ

HKU council sacrifices academic freedom to achieve Beijing goal

Finally, after months of delay and excuses, the governing council of the University of Hong Kong gave the thumbs down to the proposed appointment of former law dean Johannes Chan as pro vice chancellor, a man whose only blemish in Beijing’s sight is his identification with the pro-democracy camp.

What former governor Chris Patten had said before the handover, that the city’s autonomy “could be given away bit by bit by some people in Hong Kong”, can also be applied to the appointment saga as some people are willing to trample on academic independence in order to please the powers that be in Beijing.

On Tuesday night, the HKU council members cast their ballots on the search committee’s report recommending Chan’s appointment. The vote was eight in favor and 12 against.

After the voting, the council chairman, Dr. Leong Che-hung, said the result conformed with what is best for the university.

Council members discussed the appointment before casting their votes. And the discussion, as reported by HKU student union chairman Billy Fung, who is also a member of the council, showed that, indeed, Hong Kong’s elite chose to ignore the concepts of academic autonomy and professionalism and embrace the Chinese style of power struggle.

Council members who voted against Chan’s appointment threw everything at the respected scholar, citing his alleged lack of outstanding academic achievements and his supposedly poor performance during his term as law faculty dean.

The discussion was reminiscent of the criticize-and-struggle sessions during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s to 1970s.

And so at the end of the discussion, it was clear that Chan would not have a chance to take the university’s top post, even though he had been endorsed by the school’s independent search committee a year ago.

According to Fung, at least eight council members voiced out their opposition to Chan during the meeting.

They were former Chinese University of Hong Kong vice chancellor Arthur Li, New World Development director Leonie Ki, Standard Chartered Bank’s Benjamin Hung, Chong Hing Bank executive Margaret Leung, former Lingnan University vice chancellor Chan Kwan-yiu, HKU professor Dr. Lo Chung-mo, lawyer Martin Liao and social worker Rossana Wong.

It’s a pity that these eight outstanding individuals, who have contributed much to the success of Hong Kong in the past decades, had chosen to speak against Chan.

And what were the reasons they raised against Chan? That he doesn’t have a doctoral degree, that there were few citations of his academic publications, that he himself disclosed that he was the only candidate for the post shows his lack of professional conduct.

What’s remarkable about the discussion is that no one seemed to have cited Chan’s political stance, which is in fact the real reason why Beijing is opposed to his appointment as the university’s pro vice chancellor.

One of the most ridiculous comments made during the meeting came from Dr. Lo, who, according to Fung, slammed Chan for not showing his sympathy to Lo after he was injured when protesters stormed a council meeting.

What has that got to do with the matter of Chan’s appointment as member of the university’s governing council?

It will be recalled that just three years ago, several HKU professors, including Dr. Lo, voiced out their opposition to the appointment of Peter Mathieson as vice chancellor.

They disparaged his academic credentials and said his foreign background could present a hindrance to the university’s efforts toward improving its relationship with China. 

Despite their objections, the university confirmed Mathieson’s appointment.

It seems that some members of the HKU Council are willing to sacrifice Hong Kong’s autonomy and fully embrace the rule of Beijing. 

While Patten’s quote was for the whole Hong Kong, it also applies to the current situation at HKU.

Why cannot the HKU Council state frankly that Chan is not the proper person for the post because of his political stance and his appointment will not please Beijing? 

In fact, all these pro-Beijing people in positions of influence should say categorically that allegiance to the central government is the foremost condition for an appointment to senior positions in any Hong Kong institution.

That way, we don’t need to go through all these passionate and useless debates about qualifications and academic achievements.

One of Hong Kong’s winning attributes was its ability to attract and maintain all kinds of talents.

But after the Chan’s appointment saga, Beijing’s blind loyalists have shown that they are now running the show in Hong Kong, including all its educational institutions.

Remember the exact date of the demise of Hong Kong’s academic independence. It’s Sept. 29, 2015.

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EJ Insight writer