Danger within

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 February, 2012, 12:00am


Academic freedom has been in the news, largely as a result of the angry response of mainland officials and pro-Beijing newspapers to a survey on the identity of Hongkongers, which was conducted by the University of Hong Kong. The main target of their anger was Robert Chung Ting-yiu, director of the university's public opinion programme.

This recalls events a dozen years ago, when a senior assistant of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa put pressure on the university to stop Chung surveying public opinion of Tung and his government. The university investigated Chung's claims of political pressure and concluded that there had indeed been 'covert attempts' to pressure him. The upshot was the resignation of the vice-chancellor and the pro-vice-chancellor.

This year, the government was asked in the Legislative Council if measures were in place to ensure that academic freedom was free from political interference. In response, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, gave a ringing endorsement of academics' right to conduct research and surveys.

So far, political pressure has not done real damage to academic freedom.

This does not mean such freedom is not in danger - it is. Ironically, that danger comes from within academia. Last month, the dean of Baptist University's School of Communication released data of a poll showing Henry Tang Ying-yen closing the gap in public support on the front runner, Leung Chun-ying.

Subsequently, it turned out that the dean, Professor Zhao Xinshu, had given out information before the survey was completed and the complete survey data showed that Leung had widened the gap with Tang. A panel set up by the university to look into the incident held that it was the result of misjudgment by Zhao. Zhao then resigned as dean but remained a professor.

This incident tarnished the image of the university's school of communication and also raised questions about the integrity of academic pollsters.

Separately, a panel set up by the University of Hong Kong to look into the controversies surrounding the visit to the university by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang last August issued a detailed report this month. It found that the university had acted in such a way as to create the impression that it wanted to 'ingratiate itself with the rich and powerful'.

The university had also blundered in other ways, such as by placing the vice-premier in the host's seat and slighting former governor David Wilson, another guest of honour, by seating him in the second row.

Despite public suspicions, the panel found that Chinese officials were not responsible. The bad judgment was entirely that of the university.

Incidents such as those involving Baptist University and HKU put academics in a bad light and suggest that they themselves do not understand and value academic freedom. If that is the case, then academic freedom in Hong Kong is indeed in danger.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1