28 October 2016
Academic freedom fighters want the world to know how the Johannes Chan saga went down. Photo: Reuters
Academic freedom fighters want the world to know how the Johannes Chan saga went down. Photo: Reuters

Why the world should know about the Johannes Chan fiasco

For some concerned academics, what happened last week is not nearly as dreadful as what could be next after Johannes Chan was cut down by his own university and sent packing as a reject.

Still, for what it’s worth now that the controversial issue has been decided, they want the world to know their anger and suspicions at the way the University of Hong Kong (HKU) council conducted itself.

They can’t help feeling that the politicization of the HKU appointment process could infect the entire tertiary system.

If this can happen to an eminent scholar like Prof. Chan, it could happen to anyone.

Much of the suspicions are directed at Beijing, the Hong Kong government and its pro-establishment allies on the council.

And rightly so, the council’s demolition job on Chan is being described as campus “white terror”, code for Beijing’s suppression of dissent.

By getting the endorsement of a council-appointed search committee, Chan passed all the requirements for the job of university pro vice chancellor.

But he was not judged on those criteria.

He was measured by how he is perceived by Beijing — someone it would not be comfortable with in an important job in Hong Kong’s most prestigious university.

Chan’s only crime is that he happens to support democracy and he is “a nice guy”.

The latter became added ammunition for his critics who are now using it to discredit his previous appointment as HKU law dean, saying that is all he is — no higher qualification.

Chan’s destruction by his detractors is nearly complete but by no means is its aftermath lost on those who value academic freedom.

Which is why the HKU law faculty is vigorously defending Chan against what it calls unfair criticism.

It dismissed the “nice guy” allegation as groundless speculation, saying Chan is well respected by his colleagues because of his excellent leadership and vision and for his role in ensuring high-quality legal education and promoting rule of law.

Deans of other faculties are similarly backing Chan, including Stephen Andrews (education), Christopher Webster (architecture), Tim O’Leary (humanities) and former dean of arts Douglas Kerr.

Meanwhile, Chan’s critics are digging in. 

HKU education teaching staff Li Hui, who supported the council’s decision, said his own thesis had a “higher impact” than Chan’s work.

If you can believe that, you’re in a camp that’s causing so much distress to the academic community.

That comes from knowing that the appointment process has been turned on its head, with high political connection rather than high academic qualification the main — if not the only — consideration.  

But you wouldn’t know that if you talked to a pro-Beijing council member.

In fact, to a man, the council has been trying to divert public attention from the Chan fiasco by changing the conversation altogether to cover Beijing’s complicity and that of Leung Chun-ying’s government. 

It used to be that the university search committee recruited senior appointments and its choice was endorsed by the council.

And until now, the council has never overruled the committee.

That precedent means only one thing: this whole Chan saga can happen again.

While HKU’s academic freedom fighters may not be able to drive pro-Beijing forces from the council, they hope to keep the issue in the public eye.

There’s no better way to do that than to bring this shameful episode to the world.

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EJ Insight writer

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