Lingnan protest reflects wider social divisions

Bernard Chan reflects on Lingnan students' protest against new president

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Some students at Lingnan University are threatening to boycott classes after Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon, of the University of Science and Technology, was named Lingnan's next president. As the chairman of Lingnan's council, I oversaw the selection process.

Some students have been giving the media and their fellow students a rather inaccurate version of events. Essentially, they claim Cheng was chosen at short notice for his political affiliations and that student opinion was never sought.

In fact, a nine-member search committee - plus a student observer - started work last November. It consulted key stakeholders, including students, over the next president's desired qualities. At students' suggestion, the nine criteria included "student-orientedness".

After a tendering exercise, a recruitment company was selected. They approached 384 potential candidates. A shortlist of 21 was eventually trimmed to five for interview. After two rounds, the shortlist was narrowed to one.

The Hong Kong ordinance governing Lingnan University does not allow for the student union to have a vote on staff matters; there are also confidentiality issues involved in the recruitment process. However, I did ensure that the student observer on the search committee could comment and even ask candidates questions.

We asked candidates about all sorts of things, like their leadership abilities and their vision for the university. In a few cases, candidates might have been asked how they would respond to press inquiries about potentially sensitive issues, like June 4 activities. But no one asked about political leanings.

After Cheng's selection was announced, some students learned from the media that he had served as an adviser to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during his election campaign. It was news to me as well, though apparently some of my colleagues on the search committee had known. No one had mentioned it because they simply did not consider it a relevant factor - quite rightly.

Some students, however, reacted angrily, saying the process had been rigged, and demanded that every student have a vote on the appointment.

I could go on responding to inaccuracies, but the students' reaction raises some bigger concerns. If Cheng had been a campaign adviser to another election candidate, would that have been alright? Do the students believe there should be a political test, so only people with particular leanings can be president? Does such intolerance belong in a university, where freedom of thought and expression are so important? Do we want a climate where academics avoid advising politicians for fear of damaging their careers?

In fairness, the hostile reaction was limited to a small group. Those in one particular academic field, namely, cultural studies, claimed that the new president was being sent in on a mission to eliminate their department. Students have the right to express their opinions, but - as with all of us - it is best to check facts first.

However, what worries me is that this anger may not simply arise from campus issues. I worry that it reflects a deepening intolerance within the wider community. Hong Kong's division into political camps seems to be getting worse.

To take an obvious example, the issue of political reform is becoming increasingly bitter. The pro-democracy supporters of the Occupy Central movement are proposing to use civil disobedience to call for universal suffrage. This proposal to deliberately break the law takes things to a new level.

Some opponents have responded with even fiercer and more hostile criticism. It is as if debate is over, and now we are heading towards outright hatred. I wonder whether the older generation is setting a poor example for students to follow.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council