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HKU council controversy

HKU council members taken to hospital as meeting on pro-vice-chancellor post descends into chaos

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 1:19am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 5:16pm

A closed-door meeting of the University of Hong Kong’s governing body ended in chaos last night when angry students stormed the venue upon learning that members were sticking to their guns in deferring the appointment of a liberal scholar to a key managerial post.

HKU council member Dr Lo Chung-mau, one of those who supported the controversial deferral, collapsed in the middle of the shouting and shoving in the overcrowded room. It was unclear whether he fainted or was pushed to the ground.

An ambulance was called to take him to hospital, but the university said it was blocked at the entrance of the car park for more than 30 minutes.

Another council member, Ayesha Macpherson, was also sent to hospital after complaining of feeling unwell when she could not drive out of the car park. Protesting students complained that there were six police vehicles in the car park and officers were already equipped with warning flags that are normally used at violent confrontations.

READ MORE: 'Middleman told me to withdraw from HKU selection process', says liberal scholar Johannes Chan amid political row

“I respect the students’ passion, but we need to resolve the matter rationally,” said embattled council chairman Dr Leong Che-hung. “We wanted to work out an appointment schedule and we had many proposals for that – but now we can’t proceed.”

But Billy Fung Jing-en, president of HKU’s student union, said: “We suffered from the violence of the system and we came up with this idea to make our voice heard. Why are there police waiting for us?”

Fung added that he would like to wish Lo a speedy recovery.

The trouble began at 9.25pm, when dozens of angry students waiting outside the meeting room forced their way in after finding out the council had already voted down a motion, proposed by staff and student representatives, to “revisit” the appointment issue after it was deferred last month.

Students and pro-democracy figures have complained of political interference in the delayed appointment of liberal scholar Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun as a pro-vice-chancellor.

Watch: HKU students block council member Arthur Li from leaving closed-door meeting

Chan has been recommended for the post but has yet to be confirmed – his supporters are convinced it’s because of his pro-democracy views and close ties with his colleague, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who co-founded last year’s Occupy Central movement.

Council members in favour of the deferral say it’s an administrative issue, not a political one, and they want to wait for a supervisory post to be filled first.

“Appoint now!” the students chanted last night at the disrupted meeting, refusing to let council members leave.

They shouted “shame” at Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, directing much of their anger at the executive councillor who was appointed by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to HKU’s governing body. Li has been accused of working behind the scene to block Chan’s appointment, but last night he denied allegations that he had arranged for a middleman to dissuade Chan from accepting the post.

“Students don’t like me maybe because I’m appointed by Leung Chun-ying and they don’t like him,” Li said, describing their radical action as “Hong Kong’s Cultural Revolution”.

HKU president Professor Peter Mathieson appealed to the protesting students to leave.

READ MORE: ‘It’s an insult’: HKU professor denies diving like a cheating soccer player when students stormed council meeting 

“My primary concern here reminds me of my concerns during the Occupy protest, which is the safety of people,” he told them. “The point [you want] to make has been made. I notice the strength of feelings.”

The chaos ended with another closed-door meeting, this time between students, Mathieson, Leong and the remaining council members.

Mathieson told the press he was a “big believer in students having opportunities to express themselves and to guarantee their freedom of speech”, although he told students that two council members needing hospital treatment was not “good publicity” for HKU.

Having opposed the deferral, he said he was still “very keen” to stay in his job and to assembling his team as soon as possible.

He said he was “very accustomed to political pressure”, having spent 30 years in the publicly funded systems in health and universities in Britain, which were also subject to such pressure.

“I feel all sorts of pressure in this job, from staff, students, politicians, alumni. That’s my job. I’ll work in the best interest of the university,” he said.

He would not speculate on the reasons for police presence — he said the university did not call for them - and said it was “perfectly reasonable if they came to escort the ambulance”.

The Education Bureau condemned the protest and urged people not to put pressure on the council.

But lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who leads an alumni concern group demanding an end to the delay in appointing Chan, said it was the council’s decision that had angered the students.

“The continuous delay hurts HKU more deeply. We shouldn’t lose the focus,” he said.

Chan was shortlisted for the post, in charge of academic staffing and resources, at the end of last year. But last month, the council voted 12-6 to wait until a supervisory provost was hired and gave his “input”.