Blame being heaped on HKU chief is undeserved

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2011, 12:00am


The unintended negative consequences associated with the recent visit of Vice-Premier Li Keqiang linger on. What was originally thought to be a goodwill visit bringing gifts to boost Hong Kong's economy has, unfortunately, turned out to be a curse.

Local police were accused of putting in place overly heavy security for the Chinese leader during his attendance at the University of Hong Kong centenary celebration. They are also accused of restricting the freedom of protesters by using excessive force, even going so far as to illegally detain three students, which could constitute false imprisonment.

The incident has raised concerns that the heavy-handed police action may have impinged on HKU's autonomy.

Bearing the brunt of it all has been the HKU vice-chancellor, Professor Tsui Lap-chee, who has been accused of mishandling the whole thing. Some critics have demanded he step down.

As the head of the university, Tsui should definitely be held responsible for the consequences. The reputation of the university has been dealt a heavy blow, and its students and alumni humiliated.

But the buck shouldn't stop with him. He shouldn't be the only one to shoulder the blame; hence, there is no need for him to resign as an expression of remorse or acceptance of responsibility. In fact, Tsui personally addressed the issue right afterwards and dealt with the crisis and its fallout head-on without passing the buck. That, in itself, is quite remarkable.

Tsui also stressed his support for freedom of expression and the institution's autonomy. To show his support, he attended a vigil at HKU to protest against the police action.

Tsui is an academic with no experience in politics, but he has shown great agility and flexibility in handling adverse situations. His courage to openly accept responsibility and his humbleness in acknowledging the failures have helped him earn back the trust and support of the majority of the alumni.

Unfortunately, some critics still won't let him off the hook and criticised him for refusing to observe a minute's silence at a vigil to mourn the death of freedom of expression at HKU. Tsui said he respected the way participants expressed their views but did not think the university had lost its culture of being free, open and diverse.

Some politicians have shamelessly tried to score political points by linking the latest incident with the controversy over tycoon Li Ka-shing's HK$1 billion donation to HKU's faculty of medicine. As a result, in 2006, it was renamed the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, which drew a wave of criticism from some alumni and politicians, who questioned the university's naming procedures. Yet we cannot draw parallels between these two incidents.

If freedom of expression or academic freedom no longer exist at HKU, as claimed by critics and students, they wouldn't have been allowed to hold an open forum to voice their discontent on campus last month and the school's council wouldn't have set up a committee to review the protocol and security measures on the campus in relation to Li's visit.

It's unfair to link the 2006 controversy with the latest incident. Such comments go against the fundamental principles of academic freedom, autonomy, openness and academic diversity.

Tsui has been facing immense pressure from all directions, both internally and externally. He has been 'lectured' by the school's council for making public statements regarding the incident without prior approval.

Many questions remain to be answered. First, who made the ultimate decision about the heavy security measures imposed during Li's visit? And was the presence of the vice-premier a political decision?

The university would be better off appointing an independent investigative committee to conduct an open hearing to establish the truth. It's not only the public that deserves it; Tsui does too.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.