HKU vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson placed in tough spot by the very students he champions

Gary Cheung says HKU vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to his students' protest actions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 October, 2015, 3:07pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 October, 2015, 3:07pm

When he was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong in October 2013, Professor Peter Mathieson could hardly imagine he would emerge as one of the university's most popular chiefs since the handover.

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The Briton came under fire when he emerged as sole candidate for the job, with some senior academics at the university raising questions about the strength of his qualifications - as a dean of medicine and dentistry at the University of Bristol - to lead the city's oldest institution of higher learning. Professor Lo Chung-mau, head of surgery and a selection committee member, described Mathieson as "ignorant and incapable" for being new to China and the region.

Some pro-government council members and pro-Beijing newspapers blamed Mathieson for not being tough with the students

Since then, however, Mathieson has won over many university staff and students. After he assumed office last year, he vowed to protect academic freedom and emphasised his support for students' right to peaceful protest and free speech. He even pledged that the university would help the students who got into trouble during the Occupy protests, raising eyebrows.

On September 30 last year, two days after Occupy began, he wrote in a message to HKU students and staff that the university could not understand the use of tear gas against protesters, and that the police and government should be held accountable.

On the night of October 2, swarms of young protesters, wearing masks and goggles, laid siege to the chief executive's office in Tamar, Admiralty, as the midnight deadline for Leung Chun-ying to resign drew close. Mathieson and Chinese University vice-chancellor Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu appeared before the crowd and urged restraint. With his polo shirt drenched in sweat, Mathieson climbed onto a ladder and urged students to "put safety first" and "avoid conflict". The tension eased after Leung agreed to a dialogue with student leaders.

READ MORE: Full coverage of the HKU appointment saga 

Mathieson has faced a tougher test over the past few months with the controversy over the potential appointment of liberal academic Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice-chancellor. On July 28, a closed-door meeting of the university council ended in chaos when students stormed the venue after learning that members were sticking to their guns in deferring Chan's appointment. Appealing to the students to leave, Mathieson said: "My primary concern here reminds me of my concerns during the Occupy protest, which is the safety of people."

The situation put Mathieson in a difficult position. Some pro-government council members and pro-Beijing newspapers blamed him for not being tough with the students.

READ MORE: Hong Kong must now heed the lessons of Occupy, and move on

As students mull a class boycott and other actions to vent their anger, they should take a look at history and ponder if they'd be putting Mathieson in an even tougher spot.

On May 4, 1919, thousands of students demonstrated in Tiananmen Square against Western powers' decision at the Paris peace conference to accede to Japan's demands to transfer all German interests in Shandong . The students, who demanded that the government reject the treaty, stormed the Beijing residence of government officials. Thirty-two students, mostly from Peking University, were arrested.

The efforts by Cai Yuanpei, Peking University chancellor, to persuade students not to launch a class boycott ended in vain. Cai tendered his resignation on May 9 to shoulder responsibility and left Beijing a day later.

Cai later lamented that it was difficult to maintain discipline at Peking University as students had let victory go to their heads. HKU students should draw a lesson from history before taking their next step to defend the university's institutional autonomy.

Gary Cheung is the Post's political editor