Universities in Hong Kong

Hong Kong independence debate should be fair game on campus, Harvard expert on China says

Professor William Kirby, who sat on a panel studying governance issues at HKU, also says political leaders should not be involved with running universities

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 7:01am

Any topic should be up for discussion on university campuses, and that includes Hong Kong independence, a Harvard University professor specialising in China studies says.

But Professor William Kirby, who acted as an adviser to the University of Hong Kong on governance issues earlier this year, added that it would be more productive to talk about how Hong Kong could maintain its autonomy within the “one country, two systems” framework, since the city separating from China was extremely unlikely.

Kirby shared his views on a number of issues including freedom of speech, which has been the subject of clashes between university managements and students in recent months after banners appeared on campuses calling for Hong Kong to break away from Chinese rule.

Rows have flared over whether such materials should be allowed, but Kirby said he believed that within the confines of campuses, everything should be fair game for discussion. That was the case at Harvard, he said, as long as the dialogue was within the boundaries of propriety.

“At a place like Harvard, anyone can invite anybody to give a speech … it’s a mistake to keep people from speaking,” he said.

“We insist that any point of view can be given and of course any point of view can be criticised. However, we do not allow people to incite violence and we insist that the dialogue be civil.”

Kirby, who recently received an honorary doctorate in humanities from Hong Kong Baptist University, is described by that institution as a leading historian on modern China with research interests in the country’s business, economic and political development in an international context.

He said he was in China four years ago when the central government issued guidelines to mainland universities on seven topics not to be talked about, including civil society and freedom of speech.

“A great university must be a place where there is not even one question, let alone seven, that cannot be discussed,” Kirby said.

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The professor was a member of a panel tasked with reviewing governance procedures earlier this year at HKU, the city’s oldest university. He said that in February he and another of the three members on the panel presented a feasible plan to strip Hong Kong’s leader of the power to appoint members of the university’s governing council, a move that had been demanded by students.

Four months later, the body rejected the proposal, saying it would be too challenging to pass such legislation.

But Kirby, who sat on the panel alongside the chancellor of the University of York, Sir Malcolm Grant, and former Hong Kong High Court judge Peter Van-tu Nguyen, said approval from the city’s legislature was not required to make the role of the university’s chancellor largely honorary, which would achieve the same goal. The position is currently assumed by the city’s chief executive by default.

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Kirby and Grant recommended the chancellor delegate to the council the power to appoint future members, including its chairman.

“We recommended the chancellor delegate his or her authority to someone in the university, so no legislation would be needed to enact the reform,” he said.

In June the council announced it had reached an agreement to have committees advise the chief executive on matters such as appointing council members, as it was “not advisable at this point in time to introduce either an uncertain, long and protracted process of legislative changes or an ad hoc and informal practice of seeking agreement for delegation of power”.

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Critics slammed the council’s decision, which they said would ultimately result in the chief executive still having the final say on many matters. The issue has become contentious in recent years, with some claiming former Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying used his power to interfere in politically sensitive issues at public universities.

Kirby said the government had many levels of authority over public universities even without the chief executive as chancellor, such as through overseeing their funding.

“It’s a mistake, in my view, for any political leader to become deeply involved in the day-to-day issues at a university,” he said.

Grant and he were worried about a widespread fear in Hong Kong of political interference at universities, so their suggestion had been intended to relieve such suspicion, Kirby said.

The best universities had a chancellor who was honorary and who lent the prestige of his or her office to the institutions but did not engage in day-to-day governance, he said. The vice chancellor, together with the council, should govern, he added.