15 September 2019
Arthur Li and Peter Mathieson (above right with Li) may have bonded against a common enemy when they came under siege from protesters. Photo: HKEJ
Arthur Li and Peter Mathieson (above right with Li) may have bonded against a common enemy when they came under siege from protesters. Photo: HKEJ

King Arthur’s quest of the holy grail just got that much closer

It didn’t take much for King Arthur to win a knight over to the Round Table.

Yes, that King Arthur who chaired his first meeting as chairman of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) governing council and quickly got a new recruit — vice chancellor Peter Mathieson – to his quest.

Mathieson had been a champion of HKU students demanding reform.

But Tuesday’s siege by protesters in which Mathieson and Arthur Li were stranded for four hours inside a building, instantly turned a staunch supporter into a harsh critic.

In those four hours, Mathieson and Li, who are rarely seen together outside of their official duties, might have bonded against a common enemy.

It’s possible they thought of themselves as prisoners of the 200 students who clashed with police and surrounded the entrance to the building.

The protesters allowed everyone else to leave the building but forced Li and Mathieson back inside, demanding to be heard, according to reports.

Li left early the next morning, followed 30 minutes later by Mathieson who had promised to meet the students in 10 days.

That would have been enough for the students, who finally dispersed at 2 a.m. Wednesday, until the very next day when the normally soft-spoken Mathieson fired off an internal memo denouncing the incident in no uncertain terms.

Here’s the gist of it in his own words:

1. I condemn the behavior last night of HKU students who (amongst others) put the safety of council members, including me, and university and security staff at serious risk.

2. This is not the way to achieve progress: we will always be willing to engage in rational discussion and debate with students.

3. We cannot condone mob rule.

4. The actions were totally unnecessary.

5. The scenes last night will have further damaged the university’s reputation.

6. Video images were recorded and will be made available to the police.

There. Mathieson threw the book at the students so Li doesn’t have to.

And for the first time, Mathieson used “mob” to describe them, exactly the sentiment of the HKU establishment.

Mathieson is not known to be disparaging toward students even after they stormed a council meeting last year at the height of the controversy over the rejection of Johannes Chan for pro vice chancellor.

When they criticized Li’s appointment to the chairmanship of the council, Mathieson largely stayed neutral although he reminded them to keep calm.  

The question, obviously, is have the students lost Mathieson to the other side by their own doing?

Billy Fung, who sits on the council as chairman of the student union, doesn’t see it that way.

He thinks Mathieson “betrayed” the students.

The reality is that Mathieson acted the way he did in this instance to make his job easier.

His move to King Arthur’s table is just a consequence of that action.

Timothy O’Leary, HKU head of humanities, blames “accumulated mistrust” between the students and council members and growing impatience over the lack of progress in reforming its governance, he writes on his Facebook page.

That mistrust led to the radicalization of the students’ approach to academic issues.

It’s too early to say how Mathieson’s actions will influence his colleagues in the university administration, as well as teachers and employees, and more importantly that segment of the school population that has been supportive of the students.

What’s certain is that King Arthur’s quest of the holy grail — total control of HKU — just got that much closer.

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EJ Insight writer