My Take

Futile search for smoking gun at Hong Kong University

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 October, 2015, 1:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 October, 2015, 1:14am

I must confess I have a hard time understanding the battle cries from some of the hundreds of marchers at the University of Hong Kong yesterday.

Some demanded answers from the university council over its decision not to promote a legal scholar to a senior personnel post. Others said they were fighting for academic freedom and autonomy for the university. Both demands seem either fruitless or incoherent.

Haven't they already got "the answers" from the council's own statements on the failed appointment of Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun to the pro-vice-chancellorship? If those fail to satisfy them, they have the whole "low down" from Billy Fung Jing-en, a council member and student union chief who defied confidentiality rules and leaked the crucial discussions that led to the council decision.

Actually, I suspect they were not demanding answers, which they already have, but the smoking gun - some indications that sources close to Beijing or the Hong Kong government managed to influence the outcome of the vote against Chan. That, of course, they will never have. But some people like to press on forever for the impossible. The council's 12-to-8 vote against Chan mean at least six independents went against him even if the other six had official or business ties that the activists allege - with no proof - put them in Beijing's pocket.

As for autonomy and freedom, they are two different, if related, things. So far as I know, academic freedom is not even an issue in this whole fiasco. No one has alleged that Chan or anyone else has been prevented from pursuing studies in their fields of expertise. That's what academic freedom is all about: the freedom to study whatever you like, however controversial and unconventional. Even HKU's very own enfant terrible Benny Tai Yiu-ting has not claimed his academic work is being interfered with.

As for institutional autonomy, that is not well-understood either. A university is not a democracy; its students and staff are not citizens or voters. The internal affairs and decisions of its senior management need not be accountable to them at all. To the extent that some staff, students and alumni think it is accountable, they are the ones who are actively interfering in something they have little or no business in.