Posted:  Aug. 31, 2015


It was just a year ago that the Occupy Central movement began and thousands of protesters defied police orders to clear the streets. There was much anxious speculation about how determined the Hong Kong government and Beijing would be in calling a halt to the action that was protesting Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge local electoral reform demands. After many years out of the international public eye, Hong Kong was suddenly a political news item again and everyone was wondering how long such dramatic defiance would be tolerated. The parallels with 1989 were in many minds and people were asking whether Beijing’s ultimate decision to clear Tiananmen Square with military force might be repeated here.

Of course it was not. But no one believed there would be nothing to pay for a 79-day unauthorized blockade of major city streets. The bills are now coming due and attempts to collect are being made in several ways. One is calculated to erode yet another important measure of the political autonomy that Hong Kong thought it was being promised back at the beginning when Beijing began its Hong Kong take-over project. This demand for payment is also being presented in a way that confuses the issue … like the alternate definitions of autonomy and independence that have muddled the political reform debate because they mean one thing in Beijing and another here (Aug. 13 post).

Only the price this time is being calculated in the variable definitions of educational autonomy and freedom from government interference in academic institutions. The clamor in the pro-Beijing press began almost as soon as the last streets were cleared in mid-December. But campaigning back on their own campus turf, students now seem on course to score a victory they failed to win on the streets … with some high-powered help from faculty, alumni, and past precedents.

The University of Hong Kong’s law school stood out during the 2013-15 political reform debate thanks to its public spirited professors and the events they sponsored. These included Occupy Central itself. Hence the law school’s place at the heart of this storm. But on July 30, the university’s 10 academic deans joined in issuing an unprecedented protest statement:

“We, deans of all ten faculties of the University of Hong Kong, believe that academic freedom and institutional autonomy, guaranteed by Basic Law Article 137, are the absolute bedrock of higher education in Hong Kong, as elsewhere. We cannot emphasize more strongly the importance of adhering to these principles in all that the University does, particularly at the highest decision-making level. We also call on all parties both within and outside the University to respect these principles. ” *


Loyalists chose to make their stand over the candidate for an administrative position at HKU … not the most riveting of political issues to be sure. Except that it entails the entire range of concerns surrounding Hong Kong’s political reform debate. Most everyone thought the deans were referring to the vitriolic loyalist media campaign underway since January to demonize Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun 【陳文敏】, the recently retired head of Hong Kong University’s law school.

He remains under consideration as the leading candidate for one of the university’s top administrative posts known as the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic Staffing and Resources). But the decision, to be made by the university’s governing council, has been twice delayed amid ever more luridly-illustrated assertions that Prof. Chan’s qualifications have not been adequately vetted.

The specific case against him is his alleged lax oversight of law school professor and Occupy initiator Benny Tai Yiu-ting 【戴耀庭】, with particular reference to the handling of contributions used to fund the Occupy civil disobedience protest movement. These allegations were widely publicized after Tai’s e-mail was hacked and the contents leaked to the press last year during the street blockades (March 3, 2015 post).

The funds had originally been given anonymously at the request of the donor. They had been held in the account of the Democracy Development Network, a now largely inactive group set up years ago by Reverend Chu Yiu-ming 【朱耀明】 one of the three Occupy founders. The pro-Beijing media continues to demand a full accounting of where the money originated, who gave it, whether foreign force “black hands” were involved, and so on.

But loyalists, campaigning to derail Chan’s appointment, immediately countered the July 30 deans’ statement by asserting that it was he who had violated the principle of academic autonomy, not them. How? They have been repeating the charges for months: by his participation in the political reform consultation exercise last year (with a moderate proposal of his own); by allowing himself to be associated with Anson Chan and her HongKong2020 group, which was also active in its proposals; by being a member of the Civic Party (which he is not nor has he ever been); by turning a blind eye to Benny Tai and all the other goings on in the law school … as a consequence of which its academic rankings had declined. This particular ranking was based on the number of articles faculty members had published in international academic journals.

Turning the academic independence principle on its head in a massive publicity campaign is an effective political tactic since the general public pays little attention to elite-level university management. Professor Chan’s sympathies obviously lie with the democrats; loyalists are entitled to call him out as a political partisan. Fair enough. But are they entitled to prevent his appointment? Loyalists say yes. And they have the power to make it happen by reason of the Hong Kong government’s role in university management … even as they solemnly maintain that academic management should be non-partisan and absolutely neutral.

In fact, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is the titular head or chancellor of all eight publicly-funded universities. This is an old custom dating back to British days and with it comes the practice of appointing a minority of members on each university’s council. The universities are autonomous and self-governing. But the councils are responsible for financial and human resources and cast deciding votes on major matters … of which Professor Chan’s prospective appointment is one.

HKU’s council currently has just over 20 members … give or take a few vacancies. But current members include six Chief Executive appointees plus the chairman. The ratio of external members to internal (faculty, non-faculty, students) is supposed to be maintained at roughly 2:1. **

The lobbying against Prof. Chan has been intense. At first, earlier this year, there were only allegations of behind-the-scenes pressures being exerted by persons unnamed. Later it was right up front. Even the Beijing People’s Daily【人民日報,海外版】, in an article on August 3 called on him to step aside. So much for one-country, two-systems autonomy. But far more prominent has been a new member of the council, appointed in March by the Chief Executive and a man after his own heart.

Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung 【李國章】, one-time head of the Chinese University and before that dean of its medical school, is now a member of Leung Chun-ying’s Executive Council cabinet. Nicknamed “King Arthur” for his imperious ways, he is famous for his disdainful putdowns of all things activist, especially students. He said during a recent TV interview that Occupy student leaders had only come out “to impress their girlfriends.”

After being appointed to the HKU council Li became point man for the campaign against Chan saying, among other things, that Professor Chan didn’t want the position; he just wanted to be a martyr. If he really cared about the university he would step aside due to the controversy he was causing. Chan had issued a statement saying he would not withdraw his name from consideration because to do so would affirm the challenge to academic autonomy.

Although he is not council chairman Li is the most senior ranking member and it was after his arrival that the council twice deferred a decision on Chan’s appointment. Conservative council members decided the procedure must be changed. Chan’s post could not be filled until a more senior provost had been appointed to supervise him. There was even a suggestion to abolish the post altogether. The delaying tactics seemed set to continue indefinitely in an apparent attempt to force Chan to withdraw his name from consideration.


So open an attempt at this kind of direct political interference is rare. The only comparable case occurred in 2000 when Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s administration targeted HKU pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu 【鍾庭耀】.  The academic community rallied to his defense and Chung survived. Faculty, students, and alumni have similarly rallied to Chan’s defense with full-page newspaper ads, petitions, commentaries, and countless protest statements of which the July 30 deans’ declaration was only the most authoritative.

Student activists provided a distraction by barging uninvited into the July 28 council meeting … providing more grist for Arthur Li’s mill. But then something happened, which presumably will come to be more fully known in due course. The net result, however, is that Chan’s appointment will not be delayed indefinitely after all because someone has made a decision to try and bring this aspect of the controversy to a close.

It was announced after the council’s August 25 meeting that a new provost could not be found in good time; the file on Chan’s handling of Tai’s funds has been closed with the mildest of reminders to Chan about his negligence in not disclosing the origin of some funds Tai had turned over for the law school’s use; and the committee will vote on Chan’s appointment at the next, September, meeting!

It’s not over yet. The pro-Beijing media in recent days has opened a whole new series of accusations about “shocking” new evidence of black-hand contributions to Benny Tai’s Occupy. A full audit of all accounts must therefore be made ahead of the decision on Professor Chan (Wen Wei Po, Aug. 13, China Daily, Aug. 14). But the council pressures that were being exerted to try and force Chan’s voluntary withdrawal have failed and have themselves been withdrawn.

Whether dithering council members can bring themselves to approve his appointment in the face of continuing loyalist agitation remains to be seen … at their September meeting. Loyalists are speculating that his appointment will be voted down. In the meantime, HKU alumni have called an extraordinary general meeting for tomorrow, September 1, to vote on a motion to approve Professor Chan for the post.

Had Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying not appointed Arthur Li to HKU’s council, and had Li not acted as a battering ram intent on overturning the university’s original nomination of Chan, this issue would never have escalated into so clear a case of political interference.

As for the students, they now have a new cause. They’ve begun a campaign to reform university management. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, they say, should not double as chancellor of the universities and he should not be able to appoint so many members to the governing councils. This custom is a holdover from British days, used by the colonial government to control the universities. The students say that since Beijing has granted Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, the Chief Executive has no need for such extensive powers.





 Posted by Suzanne Pepper on August 31, 2015


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