My Take

Attack on University of Hong Kong's Johannes Chan backfires

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 2:08am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 2:08am

The Wen Wei Po must have been feeling a tad sensitive when it offered a year's free subscription to Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, saying that would help him understand its mission and professionalism.

In an editorial published last week, the left-wing paper blasted the former education secretary for making negative comments about it and its sister publication Ta Kung Pao. Due to a court injunction, I can't quite report what Li supposedly said during a University of Hong Kong council meeting. But in its response, Wen Wei Po defended its publication of articles saying Johannes Chan Man-mun was a mediocre scholar and dean at HKU's law school, and that he was unsuited for the post of pro-vice-chancellor.

You could argue that Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao ultimately got what they wanted: Chan was rejected for the job. But both papers and their ultimate paymasters got more than they bargained for. The row over Chan has morphed into a new battlefield for the pan-democratic camp against the government and Beijing for their alleged interference. First, their battle cry was that of fighting for institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Now, thanks to the court injunction, the row is about press freedom.

Why couldn't the papers have shut up and let the council itself quietly reject Chan's candidacy when it was already filled with pro-establishment members? Before this row, few people knew or cared about what the HKU council did or who Chan was. My guess is that the two papers became cocky after the "success" of their campaign against another pro-democracy scholar, Joseph Cheng Yu-shek.

Last year, a barrage of stories in the papers accused Cheng, now retired, of plagiarism and lying on a passport application. That put Cheng on the defensive just as the Occupy protests were about to start.

He was never found guilty of plagiarism but City University, where he was a chair professor of political science, demoted him to regular professor before he retired in June this year.

Wen Wei Po has also attacked Robert Chung Ting-yiu, the HKU public opinion pollster, questioning his methods and alleged ties to US government agencies.

These earlier attacks were relatively successful. But the attack on Chan, a wholly different story, has backfired.