Think tank's control of fund threatens academic freedom, Legco hears
Academic freedom in Hong Kong is threatened by the government’s recent transfer of a HK$20 million public policy research fund from academics to a politically motivated, pro-Beijing think tank, the legislature was told on Thursday morning.
Scholars, activists and students appeared at a Legislative Council question period to describe their fears about the fund’s future under the control of the Central Policy Unit, which some compared to the Chinese Communist Party.
“The funding was originally set up to help the government think outside the box,” said Eliza Lee Wing-yee, a professor of Hong Kong University’s political science department. “But the changes can mean only that the original purpose will be completely defeated.”
The criticisms came after a CPU representative said the think tank would invite government officials to participate in vetting research proposals. Critics on Thursday said independent academic research should not come under government, business or political influence, or face interference from officials.
“How will [this arrangement] be different from the propaganda unit of the Communist Party?” asked Law Yuk-kai, director of the Human Rights Monitor group.
The CPU regained control of the annual HK$20 million fund, previously overseen by academics, late last year. A significant funding source for social scientists who study local policies – from columbariums to cross-border low carbon transport – the scheme will now be overhauled to do “more timely and issue-specific public policy research”, the CPU said in December.
The CPU, the city’s top government think tank, is led by outspoken pro-Beijing figure Shiu Sin-por.
Johnson Yeung Ching-yin, president of Chinese University’s student union, said the new arrangement would “only further dampen government credibility”, and make it harder for the government to implement controversial policies.
CPU research director Stanley Wong Wing-hong defended the changes, telling lawmakers the new arrangement was aimed at adapting to the needs of a “fast-changing” society and for proper allocation of funding.
The new system would be more flexible than in the past since it could commission research at any time of the year, instead of the former annual vetting system, he said.
The government says the amount of funding involved constitutes only a small portion of the billions given to universities annually, and that independent academics will be appointed to form a committee under the CPU to vet proposals.
However, a CPU director acknowledged at Thursday’s Legco session that officials would have the right to oppose funding a particular proposal. Also, the CPU should ensure that study themes “better meet social needs”.
The fund was formerly controlled by the Research Grants Council, whose chairman, Professor Benjamin Wah, told lawmakers on Thursday that 700 research proposals have been submitted since the funding scheme was set up, and about 150 projects have been approved.
“Although it is a small amount, it has funded many researchers,” he said.