HKU council controversy

University of Hong Kong's decision not to appoint Johannes Chan as pro-vice-chancellor smacks of political interference

Phil Chan says the decision not to appoint a liberal professor to an HKU post undercuts our constitutionally guaranteed academic freedom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 11:52am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 6:14am

What is happening to my alma mater, the University of Hong Kong, is saddening and worrying. HKU Faculty of Law gave me the skills, basic knowledge and mindset to become a legal scholar. As head of the law department and later dean of the faculty, Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun extended me enormous help, patience and guidance.

However, as the HKU Convocation's extraordinary general meeting a month ago attested, the issues go beyond whether Chan is fine enough a scholar and administrator (having been dean for 12 years) to be appointed a pro-vice-chancellor.

READ MORE: Coverage of the controversy over Johannes Chan's appointment 

A primary role of a pre-eminent law school, particularly in the troubled region that is China and the wider Asia, is to instil a sense of responsibility in its students for their society and fellow citizens, while imparting knowledge through research and pedagogy. In continental Europe, Japan, South Korea and indeed mainland China, academics have significant influence over the formulation of government policy.

Thanks to its legacy and place in Hong Kong society, HKU is considered excellent by international standards for its objective research and education

In Hong Kong, academic freedom is protected under the Basic Law. It includes the freedom to associate, agree or disagree with, encourage or discourage, or intellectually support or critique another scholar. Whether or not one agreed with Occupy Central - and I, for one, did not - is beside the point. The decision not to appoint Chan, seen by some to be an ally of an Occupy co-founder, as a pro-vice-chancellor sadly calls to mind the Imperial Chinese practice of purging the extended family of a disgraced official.

Have we forgotten how the Cultural Revolution played out? Law schools were among the first to go.

Interference in university administration in Hong Kong cannot plausibly be denied. One does not need a tank or an army to interfere; in the local cultural context, a quiet word from a powerful source can be far more potent. The fact that the HKU council is composed primarily of appointees on the basis of political or commercial interests is more worrying than the fact the chief executive is HKU's chancellor.

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

That Leong Che-hung, chairman of the HKU council, called the rejection of Chan's appointment as being in the "long-term interests" of the university speaks volumes about the state of our academic freedom.

Thanks to its legacy and place in Hong Kong society, HKU is considered excellent by international standards for its objective research and education.

The ability to reasonably critique society and government is a central tenet of Hong Kong's way of life, and of the Confucian ethics by which the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities claim to abide.

Phil C.W. Chan is a visiting senior research fellow at the University of Lapland. He received his law degree from HKU and holds a PhD in law from the National University of Singapore