Is the pressure being put on the University of Hong Kong payback for being a political troublemaker?

Timothy O'Leary says HKU, not unlike Socrates the 'stinging fly', plays a vital role in society by nurturing young minds, and should not bow to political pressure

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 11:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 4:35pm

Speaking as a professor of philosophy, I am very encouraged to see the strength and occasional virulence of recent attacks on the University of Hong Kong. This is a sure sign that the university is carrying out its true mission in society.

Last year, during the events of the Umbrella Movement, the university played a key role in the most important social movement this city has seen in recent decades. The streets have now been cleared, but the recent events at the university suggest there is still one piece of work the government wants to conclude. HKU, it would seem, needs to be shown that harbouring, encouraging and educating troublemakers will not go unpunished. And it is particularly the Faculty of Law that has drawn the anger of the establishment.

As a philosopher, I might be envious at this focus on that faculty. After all, philosophy is the original troublemaker. Socrates, in ancient Athens, described himself as a stinging fly who would bite the citizens of Athens to try to wake them from their thoughtless sleep. And, in the classical Chinese tradition, Zhuangzi mocked, provoked and harangued his fellow citizens to make them question their rigid, traditional ways of thinking.

Recent events in Hong Kong, however, show that this role of stinging fly is by no means limited to the discipline of philosophy. It is, in fact, the role of the university as a whole - humanities, social sciences, law, natural sciences, even medical sciences. The mission of the university is to provide a place for the free and open pursuit of knowledge. Its mission is to nurture young minds, to open them to new horizons of possibility. If those new horizons encompass new forms of government and society, that is something of which the university should be proud. If those visions bring young people peacefully onto the street, then the city, despite the inconvenience, should be grateful.

To provide a place in which this can happen is not something for which a university should be punished; it should be praised. Socrates was condemned to death by the pro-establishment parties of his city on a charge of "corrupting the youth". In accordance with legal practice in Athens, he was offered the chance to suggest a lesser penalty. He suggested that he should be offered food at the city's expense, like the Olympic athletes, in recognition of his contribution to public life. For this blatant arrogance, he was executed.

Nobody is about to be executed in Hong Kong. For that we should be thankful. But, in a way, something just as serious is happening. HKU, as the flagship university in the city, is being subjected to political pressure. Public discussion in Hong Kong often appeals to the value of rationality. Well, is there any other rational explanation for the recent actions of the HKU council? How else can we explain its continued stalling in the appointment of Professor Johannes Chan, former dean of the Faculty of Law and therefore the former "boss" of the much-maligned Benny Tai Yiu-ting? The explanation given by the council chairman, that we must wait until a new provost is appointed, is absurd in the extreme.

This is not just a matter that affects HKU. It affects all the universities in Hong Kong, it affects all the schools in Hong Kong, and it will affect all the people of Hong Kong. If the university is forced to bow to political pressure, the whole city will suffer. The only question facing the people of Hong Kong is, do we want our leading university to be an institution that does the bidding of its political masters, or do we want it to be independent of such short-term political demands? Do we want a university that bows to political pressure and toes a party line, or a university that nurtures a new generation of independent, creative and critical thinkers? Members of the HKU council should consider these questions when they next meet. They should be aware of the potential damage they will cause the university they serve if they continue to refuse to follow established practice and approve this appointment. Before they swat the stinging fly, they should think of the invaluable service that the fly performs for our city.

Timothy O'Leary is professor of philosophy and head of the School of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong