HKU council controversy

Delay in HKU appointment of Johannes Chan makes a mockery of Beijing's pledged support for rule of law

Jerome A. Cohen and Alvin Cheung say the protracted delay in the appointment of an outspoken HKU law professor reflects worrying interference in academic freedom

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 12:16pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 12:16pm

It is dismaying to learn of the pressures now faced by Hong Kong academics who are perceived to be critical of certain Chinese central government policies. Recent developments at the University of Hong Kong have been particularly disturbing.

The controversy over the appointment of former dean of the Faculty of Law, Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, as pro-vice-chancellor for academic staffing and resources, is a visible litmus test of the preservation of academic freedom. Despite an independent search committee's recommendation that Chan be appointed, the HKU council, the university's governing body, has repeatedly delayed its decision, citing the need to await the appointment of a provost and deputy vice-chancellor. However, no such concerns were cited in the previous filling of two other vacancies for pro-vice-chancellors - who also report to the deputy vice-chancellor. Nor has the council cited any credible reasons for not appointing Chan.

READ MORE: Smears from both sides have politicised University of Hong Kong’s campus, says Baptist University chief

The council's refusal to follow long-established appointment procedures has raised fears that the university's autonomy is being compromised. It is particularly worrying that the council has delayed the appointment of Chan against the view of the vice-chancellor, Professor Peter Mathieson, who warned that further postponement can only bring adverse consequences to the effective management of the university.

Institutional autonomy and academic freedom in Hong Kong are guaranteed, both under the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration that spawned it

It is particularly sad to learn of the unwarranted pillorying that Chan has received from the Beijing-controlled national media. Locally, the personal attacks launched by the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao against Chan in some 350-odd articles since November last year amount to a concerted smear campaign.

Chan is an internationally renowned legal scholar and administrator who champions the fundamental values of human rights and the rule of law. Under his leadership, the Faculty of Law introduced legal education exchange programmes to train Chinese judges, government officials and legal scholars. He also welcomed important Chinese legal experts and promising young academics to cooperate with the likes of himself, professors Albert Chen Hung-yee and Fu Hualing, and other luminaries. Chan's contributions are reflected in his status as the first - and so far only - honorary senior counsel of the Hong Kong Bar.

At the recent extraordinary general meeting of the HKU Convocation, 7,821 alumni voted for confirmation of Chan's appointment. A rejection of Chan's appointment by the council would not only be a bitter disappointment for the university's senior management team, faculty, students and alumni, but would also set a dangerous precedent for political interference in university autonomy. It would also be a sad commentary on the future of Hong Kong as an international academic hub for the study of China.

The recent news that five mainland Chinese human rights lawyers were stopped from leaving for Hong Kong due to "national security" reasons suggests that the territory is no longer a safe venue for academic conferences, or even informal exchanges with scholars and lawyers from China - precisely the work that Chan has been so instrumental in promoting throughout his tenure as professor and dean of the law faculty.

These events also cast a cloud over China's trumpeted support for the rule of law. Institutional autonomy and academic freedom in Hong Kong are guaranteed, both under the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration that spawned it. The protracted dispute makes a mockery of that solemn pledge and of China's professed commitment to legal reform - and to Hong Kong's historic role in that process.

During his visits to the US and the UK, President Xi Jinping should be questioned about these developments. If, that is, any of his hosts have the courage to allow such questions to be asked.

Jerome A. Cohen is professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Alvin Y. H. Cheung, a HKU alumnus, is a member of the Progressive Lawyers Group