Top job at the University of Hong Kong proves too hot for most

The tenure of every head since 1997 has been tumultuous and life promises to be no easier for Zhang Xiang, the Chinese-American waiting to take over

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 1:38am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 2:03am

As the city’s oldest university is about to appoint a new chief, everyone is wondering how he will fare. My thoughts, however, turn to Wang Gungwu, the distinguished historian, and perfect combination of scholar and gentleman.

Professor Wang may be the last “legitimate” vice-chancellor the University of Hong Kong had. Up to his departure in 1995, his office was functioning the way it was supposed to. He enjoyed the affections of students and the respect of professors. He was not a politician, because there was no need for someone in his position to be one. Now you have to be a political animal to ward off the Red Guards inside the school and the China loyalists outside. Ever since the 1997 handover, the tenure of every HKU head has been tumultuous.

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At the time, I was chasing Wang to find out who his successor would be. Ever the gentleman, he would not be so discourteous as to refuse to comment flat out. Instead, knowing I had an interest in philosophy and history, he sidetracked me into a fascinating lesson on Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Islamic historical philosopher.

As it turned out, Wang’s successor was the pugnacious Cheng Yiu-chung, whose alleged interference in the work of HKU public opinion pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu resulted in Cheng’s resignation and foreshadowed the political struggles ahead.

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Tsui Lap-Chee, a world-class geneticist, was undoubtedly HKU’s most successful vice-chancellor of the post-handover era, having stayed in the top post for more than a decade. But he was given the Red Guard treatment by his most politicised students and practically chased off campus. It was over the so-called August 18 incident in 2011, when then vice-premier Li Keqiang attended the university’s centenary celebrations. Tight security led to confrontations between police and protesters, leading to claims that Tsui was pandering to Beijing.

His successor is Peter Mathieson. His greatest achievement is to have played both sides without being dragged through the mud. No wonder he is ready to jump on the first plane to Scotland to join the University of Edinburgh. Never mind the pay cut – it’s personal survival.

As Chinese-American Zhang Xiang prepares to take up the top post, his time in office will not be any easier, but likely worse. After all, his name is spelt the mainland way.