HKU council controversy

Johannes Chan’s appointment vote at Hong Kong University: why it's a big deal

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 7:24pm

Tonight, all eyes are on the University of Hong Kong’s governing council, which began meeting behind closed doors from 5pm to decide whether Prof Johannes Chan Man-mun can take up a key managerial post at the city’s top institution. Here are five points to explain why the appointment issue, dragging on for months, has become the talk of the town.

Who is Johannes Chan?

Johannes Chan, 56, was law dean of HKU for 12 years. He is a renowned scholar in constitutional law and human rights and a vocal critic on Hong Kong’s political reform issues. In recent months, the professor has been lambasted by the pro-Beijing press for his apparent close ties with Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who was also Chan’s subordinate during his deanship. Chan wrote a foreword for Tai’s book that introduced the civil disobedience movement.

One lesser known fact is that Chan is the city’s only honorary senior counsel, having argued many landmark cases on human rights in court.

What about the job he’s up for?

The influential post is one of five pro-vice-chancellors at HKU, reporting under the vice-chancellor and his deputy, called the provost. Chan was recommended by a search committee for the position overseeing academic staffing and resources. It is an important position as it exercises control over financial resources and handles recruitment matters, including staff promotion and retention.

But contrary to his critics who argue Chan’s background would bode ill for exchanges with the mainland, such exchanges would not fall under his responsibility. There is a different pro-vice-chancellor (global) in charge of mainland development.

Why do Hongkongers care about him getting the job or not? Isn’t it just an internal HKU matter?

Most definitely not. After the Occupy Central movement rocked the city last year, people are watching the government or pro-Beijing forces for any retaliation against pro-democracy leaders and participants. The HKU saga is seen as the first wave, apart from the arrests and prosecution of protesters, because one of the founders comes from the university and Chan is said to have “indulged” Tai over how he handled donations relating to Occupy.

The HKU Council has also acted in an unusual manner in the past few months. Normally, the council has always accepted search committees’ recommendations on appointment matters. But while Chan has been recommended by a search committee as the pro-vice-chancellor, the council has voted twice to defer discussions on the matter. In the July meeting, some pro-government council members came up with the now famous “wait-for-provost” excuse to force a delay. They said the council should wait for the supervising role of provost to be filled first so that he or she could give “feedback” regarding the appointment.

So who are the decision makers and who wanted to wait for provost and who might veto Chan tonight?

Of the 21-member council, 13 are external members who are established figures in business, political or educational fields, with six of them appointed by the post of chief executive. The remaining eight are staff and students including Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson.

Of the external members, seven are either deputies to the National People’s Congress (NPC) or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC): Leonie Ki Man-fung, Rosanna Wong Yick-ming, Abraham Razack, Peter Wong King-keung, Martin Liao Cheung-kong, Margaret Leung Ko May-yee and Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung.

The council has voted twice, 12-8 and 12-6, to defer deliberations. We can’t say for certain who voted against Chan as the votes were by secret ballot. But from what the Post has learnt from sources, Beijing’s liaison office has been lobbying some members to vote against Chan, and some of the external members such as Arthur Li and Razack have spoken in favour of deferral. Most of the eight staff and students were against deferral. This means most of the non-staff and non-student members voted on the same side.

What if Chan doesn’t get the job? What might happen?

Chan will remain a law professor and continue to teach at the university. But he has an option of filing a judicial review against the decision of the council, which is a statutory body.

A veto will likely cause another outrage among alumni: the university’s statutory body comprising all alumni just passed a non-binding vote earlier this month, with the majority of some 9,000 votes cast, to support Chan. Ip Kin-yuen, convenor of an alumni concern group, is already threatening to mount a legal challenge should the council not heed their voices.

HKU Council member list


Leong Che-hung, urologist, former legislator and former Executive Councillor


Six members appointed by the Hong Kong Chief Executive:

Benjamin Hung Pi-cheng, CEO, Standard Chartered Bank

Leonie Ki Man-fung, former deputy director of Leung Chun-ying’s campaign office; non-executive director of New World Development; CPPCC deputy

Ayesha Lau, partner, KPMG

Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, former education minister and former CUHK vice-chancellor; CPPCC deputy

Martin Liao Cheung-kong, legislator and barrister; NPC deputy

Margaret Leung Ko May-yee, deputy chairman, Chong Hing Bank; CPPCC deputy


Four members appointed by the council:

Edward Chen Kwan-yiu, vice-chancellor, former Lingnan University

Abraham Razack, legislator; CPPCC deputy

Wong Kai-man, independent non-executive director of China Construction Bank and of SCMP Group

Peter Wong King-keung, CPPCC deputy


Two elected members, not students or staff:

Man Cheuk-fei, veteran journalist

Rosanna Wong Yick-ming, executive director, Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups; CPPCC deputy


President and Vice-Chancellor:

Peter Mathieson


Four full-time teachers and 1 full-time employer (non-teacher) elected:

Cheung Kie-chung

Kwok Sun

Lo Chung-mau

Yuen Kwok-yung

Felix Ng Kwok-yan


Two elected student representatives:

Billy Fung Jing-en

Aloysius Wilfred Raj Arokiaraj