Lingnan University's president-elect struggles to shed ties with CY Leung

President-elect at Lingnan struggles to avoid being seen as CY's man as critics point to his pro-establishment writings and role in politics

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 7:38am

In a three-hour meeting with Lingnan University's staff and students, Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon, the final candidate for the presidency of the institution, promised to "say no" to Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong if it ever presses him to interfere with the university's liberal traditions.

"The liaison office is not my boss," he said. "Only [university council chairman] Mr Bernard Chan is my boss."

Students booed, shouting, "Your boss should be the students!" at him and Chan.

They had been protesting against what they called an unfair and opaque selection process, threatening to boycott classes if the council appointed Cheng, a former adviser to Chief Executive Leung Chung-ying's election campaign.

A few hours later, Cheng was voted in at a council meeting where the student representative on the council had no vote.

Going from faculty dean to university president is an impressive career leap, but Cheng, having achieved that, is now having difficulty convincing students and others that he's his own man.

Political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said that being considered a "CY fan" has immediately made Cheng, currently dean of the business school at the University of Science and Technology, unpopular. He also said articles he has written reveal a conservative political position that's at odds with the liberal spirit of Lingnan.

Cheng has claimed he was not a supporter of the much-criticised and now shelved patriotic education plan nor of national security law Article 23, proposed a decade ago and also dropped, but Choy said that his past writings disproved that.

"A university president is not a CEO," said Choy. "No matter how well he can lead, he should first earn people's respect."

In a newspaper commentary last year, when the row over national education was heating up, Cheng said he was disappointed that some politicians had taken advantage of the debate to boost their election campaigns. He said national education should not be based on irrational, narrow nationalism and that it would be difficult to brainwash people.

In an interview with Economic Weekly in 2004, he said he believed most people, including himself, supported Article 23, but that people disapproved of the way it had been handled because government officials had been "arrogant and would not listen to people's opinions".

In another article, he voiced concerns that religious groups were becoming increasingly involved in local politics and, referring to scholars who helped pro-democracy pastors arrange activities, asked: "Why would independent-minded scholars listen to the orders of a pastor?"

Students said the articles showed his pro-establishment position and confirmed their fears that he would threaten their social and political activities.

"He didn't convince me that he can protect Lingnan's academic freedom," said student union president Yip Wing-lam. "He appeared to have no knowledge of Lingnan's tradition of liberal education. He was picked by the council, but the council doesn't represent me."

But he had apparently convinced Chan, who said Cheng would deliver on his pledges.

"He was convincing, assertive and articulate during the interviews," said Chan. "I could feel his passion and determination."

Chan said the most important thing he wanted Cheng to do after taking over in September was to reform the university's management structure, which he said was behind a scandal in which two of its colleges admitted 2,000 students more than they had capacity for.

Francis Lui Ting-ming, a colleague and friend of Cheng's, said in a newspaper interview that he is more of a "person in an ivory tower" who is not very involved with politics. He said Cheng worked very hard.

Lui praised Cheng for "daring to make difficult decisions" and said people should not judge a university president by his political position, because the purpose of a university is not to organise social movements.

In two other articles, Cheng called Hong Kong's political system flawed and one of the obstacles to solving long-term economic problems. He urged the central government to trust Hong Kong and let the city govern itself under a democratic system based on political parties. He said Beijing and pro-democrats should put themselves in each other's shoes and come up with a win-win plan for universal suffrage.

Karen To, a former student union member at the business school, said Cheng would not threaten Lingnan's freedom.

"He valued students' ideas and was a good listener," she said. "When we proposed unprecedented policies which would encounter many constraints, he told us how we could deal with those constraints."


Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon

1975 Graduated from Chinese University with Bachelor of Social Science in economics
1980 Graduated from the University of California with Doctor of Philosophy in economics

Career in education
1980-1992 Teaching at College of Business Administration of the University of Florida
1992-2013 Teaching at School of Business and Management of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
2009-2013 Dean of School of Business and Management of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Other positions
1977 Assistant project analyst at the World Bank
2009-2011 Member of the Minimum Wage Commission
2011-2015 Non-executive director of the Securities and Futures Commission
2013-2016 Member of the Competition Commission