HKU council controversy

Playing at politics: Student leader's tell all of HKU council's rejection of Johannes Chan's appointment was a poor decision

Alice Wu says by disclosing what he heard behind closed doors on why Johannes Chan was rejected for a senior post, student leader broke his own pledge but failed to further the academic's cause

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 October, 2015, 9:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 October, 2015, 3:25pm

The University of Hong Kong's pro-vice-chancellor saga became a witch-hunt the moment the news media got involved. And once that happened, what has always been an internal university matter and process was thrown into the public domain. All gloves were off at that point - and the wish to keep that process inside the university became absolutely "wishful".

READ MORE: University of Hong Kong council leak prompts debate over transparency

Academic politics doesn't have a reputation of playing nice to begin with - think Columbia University professor Wallace Stanley Sayre's famous quip: "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low." Throw into that mix the increasingly ferocious and vindictive nature of the news media and its love for stoking and exploiting fears, and there was very little chance of a happy ending.

The pro-vice-chancellor appointment has been politicised. And it is tragic. But however monstrous the process, no one can take away Johannes Chan Man-mun's international standing and his achievements as an academic, professor and counsel.

Deliberative privilege is there to foster frank debate, to protect those who participate from harassment and recrimination - regardless of whether what they say is ludicrous or not

All politics could do was take away Chan's pro-vice-chancellor seat, which measures meagerly against what he has already accomplished. We can be sure that his crucial work in public law and human rights and stimulating public debate over Hong Kong's legal developments will continue, regardless of whether he manages staff at HKU. His words will continue to carry weight.

But consider what politics has taken away from the university's student union president Billy Fung Jing-en. Perhaps he felt justified in not respecting the council's confidentiality pledge since the body had already gone against the usual practice of rubber-stamping the search committee's recommendation. Perhaps he felt compelled to disclose who said what due to the "ludicrousness" of their comments. Whatever his reasons, his future is now at risk.

READ MORE: 'A deliberate attempt to vilify': University of Hong Kong scholar Yash Ghai's full statement in support of Johannes Chan

Deliberative privilege is there to foster free and frank debate, to protect those who participate in the debate from harassment, censure and recrimination - regardless of whether what they say is ludicrous or not. By outing who said what and openly speculating about who voted which way in a secret ballot, Fung is participating in the very things he is standing up against. There are reasons for rules and practices. Fung proved that things were nasty, which we already knew; why else would Professor Yuen Kwok-yung quit after the students' storming of the council meeting in July? Yuen did not reveal what was said in the council meeting; he considered that the politics was beyond his faculty and he would be better off returning to his work in infectious diseases and mucor spores instead.

If the students' storming of the meeting was not conducive to solving the problem, the breaching of confidentiality was of no help to anyone, especially Fung. He has tarnished his integrity, and his action did not help Chan get appointed. Nor did it prove that there was any academic interference, which is at the heart of the appointment controversy. "He said/she said" serves little purpose, in fact.

READ MORE: Hong Kong University appointment saga: has a shadow been cast over the campus?

What Fung did gave him media attention, but he paid for it with giving away his "word", which closes doors and will strip him of opportunities in the future. Any breach of confidence, in a whole list of professions, cannot be justified where confidentiality is required. No matter how "ludicrous" he may find the rationale, many people, including potential employers, would be worried - and rightfully so - about when Fung might be next "compelled" to risk others' right to nondisclosure.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA