Macau scholars warn of rising censorship, loss of confidence in 'one country, two systems'

The fate of three outspoken professors has led Macau academics to warn of rising censorship and a loss of confidence in 'one country, two systems'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 5:20am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 10:52am

Eric Sautede's last day as a professor at the University of Saint Joseph was July 11. Bill Chou Kwok-ping, a political scientist at the University of Macau, is waiting to be told when a 24-day suspension without pay comes into force. Emilie Tran, dean of Saint Joseph's faculty of administration and leadership, has been demoted.

Their professional circumstances, made public recently, have sparked outrage among students, alumni and their fellow academics who fear that unprecedented censorship is taking place in Macau's universities. The former Portuguese enclave has long enjoyed freedom of expression in all sectors.

"A few years ago I had told foreign friends, when it comes to academic freedom in Macau, it's not so much a problem of no freedom but not using that freedom to the full," said Martin Chung, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and a former lecturer at Saint Joseph University. "I wouldn't say that now."

At the end of June, a student at the University of Macau, holding a banner with the message "Support scholars who speak out. Please Stop Persecution of Scholars", was forcibly removed from the university's congregation ceremony.

Weng Kei-to, 22, said her main motivation for protesting was that she had heard several professors from different universities were under pressure. "I wanted to support my teachers to speak out," she said. "I hope that my school and the government defend our freedom of expression and academic freedom."

After the incident, Sautede's dismissal and Chou's suspension came to light in the Macau press.

Sautede's firing was the first time since the 1999 handover that a scholar in Macau had been openly dismissed for expressing his political views. The French professor of politics and political commentator, who had taught at the university for seven years, had been vocal in interviews and in his column for the English-language Macau Daily Times. In one of his latest columns, Sautede reflected on the June 4 vigil in Macau, which had an unprecedented turnout of 2,000 people. "It is unquestionable that [it] appears, if not yet as a turning point, at least as a landmark," he wrote.

Sautede will receive compensation of about five weeks' salary, but he is still considering suing the university over his dismissal. "There are different possibilities, and one of them would be, of course, to raise the issue of discrimination as stipulated in the Macau labour law," he said. The law says workers should not be discriminated against on the grounds of political or ideological beliefs.

The rector of Saint Joseph University, Peter Stilwell, who fired Sautede, told the Portuguese-language newspaper Ponto Final that the situation had been becoming "increasingly delicate" for the university.

Sautede's sacking served "to clarify matters", he said. "There is a principle in the church, which is of non-intervention in local political debates. It's possible to study several political systems and the Basic Law without intervening in current government affairs. It's a thin line, difficult to draw, between political commentary and academic [commentary]."

Stilwell later tried to justify his decision in an open letter to staff, students and alumni.

"The fundamental point my attention ultimately focused on was: How does a Catholic university position itself in Macau so that it is true to the core human values of a 400-year-old tradition and is perceived as such by the local community - not as a haven for foreign interests or for local political infighting?," he wrote. "So that is where we stand. Eric and USJ part company. The responsibility for the decision is mine, and no 'blame' is attached to Eric, except that he remains true to his convictions."

Sautede said in an e-mail sent to students and professors that his case was more complicated. "There are basically three alleged reasons that led to my sacking," he said.

Chui is doing the minimum, and it's not convincing

"A passing comment made earlier this year about the outgoing chief executive lacking charisma" was one of them, he said.

In a Macau Business article published online on January 25, Sautede said Fernando Chui Sai-on's expected re-election would have little to do with his achievements. "Mr Chui has no talent for ceremonial duties and has no strong personal charisma. He is unable to take questions from the floor, and he is always delaying final answers…He is doing the minimum, and it's not convincing," Sautede said.

Sautede's situation became more complicated in April. The French scholar was replaced as the university's academic events manager after a conference about the Chinese revolution. In hindsight, he thinks this was the second reason for his dismissal.

At the time, in spite of the demotion, Sautede was unaware that he might lose his job. "I was not under any kind of disciplinary process or inquiry, under no disciplinary action of any kind," he said.

A third reason was pressure from the Tertiary Education Services Office, which oversees higher education in Macau. Sautede also said that the Catholic Foundation of Higher Education, which runs the university, was playing an increasingly important role in its decisions. "Its involvement in the affairs of the university has been ever more hands-on in the past year, scrutinising all research projects and even suppressing research drives."

He said it was "simply impossible" for the Catholic Foundation not to have encouraged the termination of his contract.

Sautede said the decision to sack him was "not only dangerous", but also "clearly contrary to the principle of 'one country, two systems' and contradicts several key points of the Basic Law".

The bishop of Macau, Jose Lai Hung-seng, denied exerting pressure on the rector of the University of Saint Joseph. Asked about the Catholic Foundation's role in Sautede's dismissal, he said: "We never had influence on that."

The Tertiary Education Services Office also denied pressuring the universities. "The government never interferes with its internal works and, at the same time, has always respected its academic freedom and pedagogical autonomy," a spokesman said in an e-mail.

Wikileaks released a cable, dated March 18, 2008, from the US Consulate in Hong Kong that suggested the university has had to follow certain rules since its conception. It cited the vice-rector of the Macau Inter-University Institute (the former name of the University of Saint Joseph) at the time, Ivo Carneiro, saying that when the institution was established, just prior to the handover, the "central government liaison office officials in Macau told the university administrators that only two subjects were 'not to be criticised' in university research and programmes: the 'one country, two systems' principle; and the Politburo of the Communist Party of China".

Tran, the wife of Sautede, has also become embroiled in Saint Joseph University's personnel issues. She confirmed her one-year contract as dean of the faculty of administration and leadership had not been renewed, though she would remain as a professor.

Tran, who has occasionally criticised government policies, declined to comment on the circumstances of her demotion.

Academic freedom has also become an issue at the University of Macau. Chou was informed on June 11 that he would be given a 24-day suspension without salary. But he still doesn't know when it will come into effect. He has been a professor at the university since 2002.

In 2012, he protested against what he called the "unbalanced coverage" by the local television station TDM of Macau's political reform process. At the time, he was aware of the risks he was taking. In an interview with the Portuguese newspaper Tribuna de Macau, he said he was afraid of losing his job. He said he had received anonymous letters criticising his political stances and that colleagues would give him "friendly reminders" to desist from expressing his opinions so openly and harshly.

A formal warning came in November 2013, when a university letter signed by the rector told Chou that a disciplinary process had started against him.

Chou, who joined the city's major pan-democratic group, New Macau Association, last year and was elected its vice-president this month, has become one of the most vocal scholars advocating for universal suffrage.

He said he was accused of imposing his political beliefs on students. "They also say that I discriminate against the students and that I disobey superiors - but they gave me no evidence or facts on this," he said.

A university official acknowledged it had received such complaints about Chou from students, including ones that accused him of giving extra credit to those who participated in certain political activities.

The university said in an e-mail it had "always" respected academic freedom and that it would "not start any disciplinary procedure against any member of the university because of his or her political views in society".

However, Chou's worst fears seem to be coming true. His contract with the university expires on August 31 and it is unlikely to be renewed because the university has shown no intention of renewing the contract three months in advance of its expiry, as stipulated in its rules.

They say I disobey superiors ... but give no evidence
Bill Chou

Chou, who says that the internal inquiry "violated laws and regulations", is considering suing the University of Macau.

Some professors said the strained political environment in Macau had been exacerbated by recent demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of a bill that would have granted generous retirement packages to the outgoing chief executive and other top officials.

Larry So Man-yum, a lecturer at the Polytechnic Institute, said there was an obvious link between the professors' cases and the recent protests. "I don't think it's a coincidence. I think it's an alarm bell," he said.

"What happened in May made the traditional organisations who are in power feel pressurised by young people," So said.

He said there was a "threatening atmosphere" in Macau, because "some traditional organisations think that the so-called radical academics are threatening them and influencing the youth".

Macau legislator Jose Pereira Coutinho said the pressure being put on professors was a concern that went beyond the universities' walls. Sautede's and Chou's cases were proof, he said, that "freedom of expression in Macau is deteriorating".

He said confidence in the "one country, two systems" principle was at stake. "This is an attempt at limiting the voices who have different opinions from the government, and it is affecting the second system," he said.

Sautede's dismissal and Chou's suspension have prompted several petitions.

Seven academics from Macau and Hong Kong, including Baptist University's Chung, signed one of them, which was handed to the Macau bishop.

Sautede's case may even be taken up in Europe. "We are considering different possibilities for further action and their pros and cons; taking the road to the Vatican is one of them," said Chung.

A group of Saint Joseph University alumni has written to three international organisations - the Institute of International Education, Scholars at Risk and Amnesty International - detailing Sautede and Chou's cases.

Rocky Chan Lok-kei, one of the leaders of the initiative, said the main goal was to stop the persecution of scholars in Macau.

"I think this is a matter of public interest. Scholars may now be afraid of expressing their views … And Macau would not benefit from that."