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Hong Kong leader CY Leung is playing ‘hunger games’ with public universities

Chief executive’s call for private sector not to donate to tertiary institutions risks firing up yet more controversy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 December, 2015, 4:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 2:59pm

A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth, a political wit once observed.

So far, the most (in)famous one for Leung Chun-ying had been when he said democracy would see poorer people earning less than HK$14,000 a month dominate elections, during the height of the Occupy protests last year.

Now, the chief executive is in danger of making another one.

According to a news report on NOW TV, Leung told a private audience that there was no need to donate to local universities because they were already well-funded from multiple sources and were overstaffed anyway. Instead, the private sector should consider donating to research projects and even primary and secondary schools. Some heads of universities were reportedly present and were shocked.

READ MORE: Hong Kong think tank urges HK$50 billion more for universities to spur innovation and technology

Last night, Leung’s press office said he encouraged people to donate to universities and secondary schools. That was no denial so it looks like the NOW TV report was accurate.

The report’s timing is especially unfortunate. Leung’s predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, through his think tank, the Our Hong Kong Foundation, has just recommended injecting an extra HK$50 billion into existing public funding to boost university research.

The chief executive is, after all, the chancellor of all eight public universities. If he doesn’t want to raise funds for them, who will?

Between many university students and academics, and Leung, there is no love lost – hence the sensitivity of his remarks.

They make it sound like Leung was trying to cut off his nose to spite his face. No advanced society today can survive without well-funded universities, even if some appear to be breeding grounds for political agitation. That’s the price you pay for free thought.

A more charitable interpretation of his remarks is that he had been encouraging independent research institutes to set up shop in Hong Kong.

READ MORE: CY Leung feels heat over donation to Karolinska Institute - where his son studies

Sweden’s renowned medical research group, the Karolinska Institutet, is coming here, thanks to a US$50 million donation from Joseph Lau Ming-wai, the head of Chinese Estates Holdings.

The new Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong is also being set up, modelled after a similar one on the mainland.

But funding is not a zero-sum game in rich Hong Kong. The last thing Leung wants is to be seen trying to starve our universities of funding.