Last Tuesday night, several hundred students surrounded a building from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) where the governing council had just met and stopped Arthur Li and other officials from leaving the premises.
The students wanted to express their anger over the council’s failure to immediately set up a task force to review HKU’s governance structure.
My description of the students’ actions that night as “way out of line” was largely based on the first-hand account of Man Cheuk-fei, one of the stranded council members.
Man is a highly respected and seasoned journalist and a man of integrity. I had no reason to doubt him.
He said the confrontation between the students and Arthur Li was so intense a stampede could have ensued in the narrow hallway and caused serious injury.
I also believe vice chancellor Peter Mathieson meant it when he told reporters that he felt his personal safety was at risk, even though I have serious reservations about his comparison of the incident to “mob rule”.
However, what Li said at a press conference the next day was more controversial and provocative than what the students did.
Li said the protesters were “like people on drugs”.
He then went on to accuse the Civic Party of pulling the strings behind the scene and inciting the students to violence, using what amounted to slanderous language.
Anybody with the least understanding of Hong Kong politics can easily find Li’s accusations unfounded and his arguments flimsy.
As we all know, in recent years students have taken center stage in various social movements whereas the major pan-democratic parties have taken a back seat.
Many students are even disdainful of pan-democrat politicians, accusing them of incompetence and flip-flopping.
So why would the students take orders from people they dislike?
At the end of the day, the infighting that has already taken its toll on HKU’s reputation and credibility has its roots in Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s appointment of Arthur Li to the chairmanship of the council over the objections of students and alumni.
A I mentioned earlier, the reason I am against Li’s appointment is that a world-class and prominent university such as HKU should never be led by someone with a belligerent, confrontational and judgmental disposition.
Unfortunately, our chief executive see these character flaws as credentials when making key appointments.
On the night of the siege, shortly before he was able to finally leave the building, Mathieson agreed to arrange a meeting between Li and the students in 10 days.
If that meeting materializes, I hope the students will not resort to radical action again, no matter the outcome, because that would only alienate the public and HKU alumni.
Nor should they smear the people they oppose as Arthur Li did to them.
In the meantime, the students should make good use of HKU’s global influence and connection to force reform.
In addition, they must convince the public that their cause is rational and peaceful.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 3.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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