HKU council controversy

Going down swinging: University of Hong Kong's Johannes Chan decries political interference and wants reasons after appointment defeat

Ex-law dean calls on HKU council to come clean on why it rejected him for a top post as international scholars come out to back him

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 11:51am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 October, 2015, 11:17am

Legal academic Johannes Chan Man-mun yesterday urged the University of Hong Kong's governing council to give a public explanation for its controversial decision to reject his appointment to a key managerial post, as renowned international scholars spoke up for him.

But Chan said he had no plan to challenge the decision in court, even though students and alumni were considering such a move as well as a class boycott.

The council set off a storm by voting 12-8 in a secret ballot on Tuesday night against a search committee's recommendation that Chan be made the pro-vice-chancellor in charge of academic staffing and resources.

READ MORE: University of Hong Kong's council votes 12-8 to reject Johannes Chan's appointment as pro-vice-chancellor

Opposition to Chan's appointment had been linked to the liberal scholar's close ties to colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a co-founder of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement.

On a radio programme yesterday, Chan said the council, being a statutory publicly funded body, had a duty to act fairly when exercising its powers.

"Rule number one is openness and transparency," the former law dean said. "Confidentiality should not be an excuse to avoid accountability to the public, especially when this matter has drawn a great deal of public interest."

READ MORE: Hong Kong university a study in politics of academia amid disputed appointment of Johannes Chan

Chan added on another radio show that he thought his rejection stemmed from "political interference", citing over 300 articles in pro-Beijing newspapers attacking him.

However, Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, the city's sole deputy to the National People's Congress Standing Committee, said those who alleged Beijing interference should prove it.

After the closed-door discussions on Tuesday night, angry student representative Billy Fung Jing-en abandoned confidentiality rules and revealed the reasons eight pro-government members had given for rejecting Chan, ranging from his having no PhD degree to his failure to "show sympathy" to a council colleague who collapsed in July when students stormed a meeting.

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

Several renowned international public law scholars, including HKU's Yash Ghai, dismissed council members' reservations about Chan's academic qualifications.

They said a doctorate degree was not important in the discipline, and praised Chan's work and professional experience.

"As a long-serving member of HKU … it grieves me greatly to see the council turn to these nasty tricks to deny [Chan the job] in order to - one must assume - appease the Chinese government," Ghai said.

But some of the council members who were "exposed" by Fung hit back. Arthur Li Kwok-cheung accused Fung of lying, Leonie Ki Man-fung said the student leader had no integrity in breaching confidentiality rules and he "misinterpreted" their words, and Edward Chen Kwan-yiu denied saying Chan did not have a PhD. But they refused to reveal what they had actually said.

READ MORE: Doctorate not that important for HKU managerial post, says committee member in Johannes Chan case

Meanwhile, HKU vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson clarified a Reuters report that quoted him as saying he could not rule out Beijing was behind the rejection of Chan. He said last night the interview was done on August 4, and he was talking about his email account being hacked, since he "did not know who" did it.

An alumni group is inviting council chairman Dr Leong Che-hung and other members to a forum to explain the decision.

Additional reporting by Phila Siu and Stuart Lau