Attack on Johannes Chan is an attack on freedom of speech

February 12, 2015 11:30
The leftist media would not have been so critical of Johannes Chan (above) if he had been engaged in pro-government or pro-Beijing political activities. Photo: HKEJ

A day before the official release of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) report by the University Grants Committee (UGC), Wen Wei Po somehow got hold of a copy of a classified document supposedly only known to the government and members of the UGC and ran a three-page story on it.

The paper blamed Professor Johannes Chan, former dean of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) law faculty, for the "poor quality" of HKU's academic research compared with its Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) counterpart.

It concluded that Chan had put too much effort into politics which eventually took its toll on the performance of the law faculty.

In addition, it said Chan coddled leaders of the Occupy Central movement such as Benny Tai, an associate professor in the law faculty.

Shortly after that, Professor Michael Hor, the current law dean, published an open letter in response to the RAE report in which he expressed concern over newspaper reports that compared the law faculties of HKU and CUHK.

Quoting the UGC’s conclusion, Hor said the comparison was unfair and inappropriate.

In a separate article, Chan pushed back against the “relentless attacks” by two pro-Beijing newspapers, calling them an attempt to put pressure on HKU to stop his appointment as its pro-vice chancellor.

He said the attacks constituted a serious interference in the autonomy of the university and undermined freedom of speech.

Chan defended the academic performance of the HKU law faculty during his watch, saying HKU was ranked 18th in the world when he left.

He described attempts to discredit him as “Cultural Revolution-style persecution” which could darken the prospects for “one country, two systems”.

Professors Albert Chen and Cheng Kai-ming, both of whom have a good relationship with Beijing, rallied to his defense.

However, Professor Francis Lui of the faculty of economics of the University of Science and Technology, said academics could take part in political activities only if these are “neither illegal nor immoral”.

With regard to the allegation that Chan spent too much time on politics at the expense of his job, I believe it was both politically motivated and totally unfounded.

Such allegations won't stand the test of scrutiny based on the facts.

As to the accusation that he is not fit to be pro-vice chancellor because of his political views, I believe the leftist media would not have made the claim if Chan been engaged in pro-government or pro-Beijing political activities.

The reason he is being attacked is simply that he happened to be on the opposite side.

In fact, when it comes to politics, Professor Albert Chen has been much more active.

I believe the leftist media would be very happy if Chen was nominated for the pro-vice chancellorship.

Professor Lui should know that many vice chancellors in our universities have taken part in political activities in the past including serving on the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Their superiors had no problem with that.

That said, we must also respect the leftist media's right to free speech. The question is whether the attacks on Chan were based on facts and not meant to serve any political purposes.

It appears that the stories involved unauthorized access to classified documents. Obviously, these were no ordinary reports.

In his policy address last month, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying cited the Basic Law in denouncing university student journal Undergrad for supposedly advocating independence for Hong Kong.

It is the same Basic Law that guarantees the autonomy and academic freedom of our schools under Article 137.

School officials and the academic community -- regardless of their political views -- as well as the public in general must stay vigilant against any attempts to undermine those legitimate rights.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 11.

Translation by Alan Lee

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government