Attempt to subvert academic freedom in Hong Kong is far worse than disrupting the HKU council

Anson Chan says the real issue in the HKU appointment row is the alarming threat to its prized autonomy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 August, 2015, 4:55pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 August, 2015, 4:55pm

It was bound to happen. The current torrent of righteous indignation that has been unleashed in response to the gate-crashing by student representatives and others of last week's meeting of the University of Hong Kong's council is clearly intended to divert attention from the much more serious issue of who and what are to blame for the crisis engulfing the university.

I do not condone the actions of the students and fear that the rowdy incident has played into the hands of those who are bent on discrediting their very legitimate concerns. However, I sympathise completely with their frustration.

HKU is Hong Kong's most venerable and respected seat of academic learning. It is my alma mater, and, along with many of my fellow alumni, I am both angry and dismayed that the prolonged shilly-shallying by the council over the appointment of the post of pro-vice-chancellor for academic staffing and resources is bringing the university's governance into disrepute, both locally and overseas.

I have held back from commenting on this issue earlier because the person at the centre of the affair, Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, is a friend and a valued member of my Hong Kong 2020 think tank. I may, therefore, be viewed as biased in his favour. But this is not about individuals; it is about principles and due process. I would feel just as strongly whoever was being treated in such a disingenuous and cavalier fashion.

I wonder if those members of the council who are content to keep kicking the can down the road realise just how much damage they are doing, not just to the standing of the university they have been appointed or elected to serve, but also to perceptions of their own personal and professional integrity. Hong Kong people are not stupid. They can see the latest lame excuse for deferring a decision - the need to seek the counsel of a new provost who has yet to be identified - exactly for what it is: a flimsy cover-up of the real reason for the delay and an insult to the intelligence of the general community.

Let's not forget that the recommendation of the university's search committee, that Chan be appointed as pro-vice-chancellor, was made in December. That search committee was chaired by the vice-chancellor, Professor Peter Mathieson, the person to whom the pro-vice-chancellor will report and be ultimately accountable. Mathieson has made very clear that he wishes to see the post filled as soon as possible, and that further postponement can only have adverse consequences for the efficient management of the university.

The refusal of the council to follow well-established appointment procedures and come to a prompt decision on the search committee's recommendation is, therefore, not only cowardly but downright irresponsible. In the absence of any credible reason for deferring the decision yet again, it is hardly surprising that many observers are concluding it is the result of political pressure being brought to bear by parties who are, quite simply, determined that no avowed pro-democracy activist will be appointed to a senior management role in HKU.

I am not going to speculate on who these parties may be, as we are already awash with rumours about interference from the highest levels of our own government and the central government's liaison office, not to mention interventions by shadowy "middlemen", tasked with persuading Chan to either withdraw his candidacy, or accept appointment and then immediately resign the position. The whole situation would be farcical if it were not so alarming and distasteful.

We must be under no illusion as to what is at stake. What we are witnessing is an all-out assault on the autonomy of Hong Kong's most respected educational institution and on the precious rights and freedoms that underpin it.

So, while I do not endorse the tactics that the protesters deployed on July 28, I applaud the students' determination to stand up and be counted when it comes to the defence of our most fundamental core values. I also totally support the position taken by the University of Hong Kong alumni concern group, and the HKU Convocation's standing committee's call for an emergency general meeting in early September, which will be open to all graduates and teaching staff.

Among other things, the meeting will discuss whether provisions for the chief executive to be chancellor of all Hong Kong's universities continue to be appropriate. Going forward, it is crucial to ensure that the chief executive's powers under the institutions' ordinances, including the power of appointment of university council members, cannot be used as a means to entrench government influence and control.

Academic freedom and the autonomy of educational institutions are fundamental rights guaranteed to Hong Kong under Article 137 of the Basic Law. They are a mainstay of our free, just and stable society and underpin other cherished freedoms of expression, ideas and of the press and publication.

If, as a community, we do not stand up to defend these rights at HKU, it will be only a matter of time before the rot spreads to all of our universities and beyond, to the wider educational system.

Hong Kong's ability to nurture local academic excellence and to attract top quality scholars from overseas to fill teaching, research and management posts will rapidly decline, with dire consequences for our culture and quality of life.

This must not be allowed to happen.

Anson Chan, a former chief secretary, is the convenor of Hong Kong 2020