University of Hong Kong council's weak argument for not appointing Johannes Chan only fuelled the criticism
Choi Chee-cheong says if the university council had acknowledged the politics behind its decision on Johannes Chan, the reaction may have been milder
The disappointing handling of the appointment of a pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Hong Kong culminated in the veto of the appointment at the university council meeting last month. This incident has dealt a serious blow to the university's reputation. A long shadow has been cast over its academic freedom and institutional authority.
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Council chairman Dr Leong Che-hung repeatedly said that members had cast their vote based on their conscience, taking into consideration the long-term interests of the university. He denied they were under any pressure. However, the groundswell of scathing criticism levelled against Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun in recent months in pro-Beijing newspapers here and on the mainland spoke volumes.
Most people believe government officials here and in Beijing played a pivotal role and cannot help second-guessing that the 12 members of the council who voted against the appointment were somehow ordered to do so.
Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing questioned the handling of the appointment. He added that even if the council had approved Chan's appointment, it would have been very hard for him to work effectively given that, in the eyes of the public, his clear pro-democracy bent was at odds with the central government's views. This view seems genuine and realistic.
Had the 12 members who voted "no" had Tsang's wisdom and honestly admitted that their reasoning was along these lines, the public reaction would probably have been much milder, and the aftermath less chaotic. The council chairman's argument that the vote was in the university's long-term interests would probably be more credible, even if one does not agree with him.
The council members should have learned from Beijing officials. President Xi Jinping has categorically declared that there are seven taboo subjects which should not be raised in universities. More recently, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, spoke of the chief executive's "transcendent" position, knowing that his words would spark controversy.
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By contrast, HKU council members opted to use unconvincing and somewhat naive arguments to defend their decision, from the need to wait for the provost's appointment to Johannes Chan's lack of a doctorate degree. These hurt the university's reputation and split the community.
Honesty is the best policy. This is true even in politics. The 12 council members who voted "no" could have been more upfront and discharged their duties better.
Choi Chee-cheong is an HKU alumnus