HKU council chairman calls Post interview with outgoing vice chancellor Peter Mathieson ‘fake news’
Arthur Li, also a member of Carrie Lam’s cabinet, alleged that the article misquoted Peter Mathieson as saying Beijing’s liaison office in the city regularly interfered with his work
The chairman of the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) governing body, Arthur Li, on Wednesday repeatedly accused the South China Morning Post of publishing “fake news” in its interview with the institution’s outgoing vice chancellor, Peter Mathieson.
Li alleged that the article misquoted Mathieson as saying Beijing’s liaison office in the city interfered with his work, even though this was not how the Post reported the university don’s remarks during a recent farewell interview he gave to the paper.
Mathieson was appointed in April 2014 for a five-year term but announced his resignation last year.
In a frank hour-long interview conducted in December [see below for an excerpt of the Q&A], he told the Post that like all university leaders, he had conversations with Beijing’s representative in the city.
He also revealed that he felt pressure from “everybody” – politicians across the spectrum, alumni, students, staff and the media.
A turbulent tenure: HKU vice chancellor reflects on his time at the helm of Hong Kong’s oldest university
However Li, in a live webcast on Wednesday, said he was shocked to read the article, as it “seemed to me that Mathieson had been under pressure from the liaison office all the time but he never told me about those communications”.
Li added that when he quizzed Mathieson about the article, the outgoing vice chancellor denied saying there was “interference” from the liaison office.
During the interview, hosted by former lawmaker Emily Lau Wai-hing and with reporters from the city’s media organisations present, Li took out his mobile phone and read out his exchange of text messages with Mathieson.
“Peter, you didn’t tell me that there were interferences from the liaison office. Please elaborate and clarify for me. [From] Arthur,” Li said.
He continued: “Peter said ‘SCMP typically misquoted me. They asked if I was put under pressure. And I said, all the time. They asked if the liaison office talked to me. And I said yes. They then conflated the two. I never called it interference. I talked about advice.’”
However, the two articles featuring Mathieson’s comments and published in the Post on January 8 neither carried the word “interference” nor at any point conflated the pressure Mathieson claimed he faced with interference from Beijing.
According to the audio recording of the interview reviewed by the Post again on Wednesday, Mathieson’s response to the question on whether he had contact with the liaison office was: “Oh yes, several times. That’s part of my job. All the university leaders have had contact with the liaison office. And the liaison office takes an interest in education in Hong Kong, in the same way as it does in other affairs. I consider that as part of my job. If there is a meeting that involves political officials that I’m invited [to], then I usually go and try to contribute.”
The original article had incorrectly reported Mathieson as saying he had conversations “all the time” with the liaison office.
Outgoing HKU chief says Beijing officials have met him ‘several times’ and wishes higher education ‘wasn’t so politicised’
The question was a follow up to Mathieson’s admission that he had received advice from senior government officials in the city.
He had said: “Yes I’ve talked to senior officials. I’ve talked to chief executive, both chief executives that I’ve worked with, education secretaries, UGC [University Grants Committee], the liaison office, the Ministry of Education in Beijing, the various press offices and all sorts of people, I have all sorts of discussion and that’s my job.”
But during Wednesday’s studio session, Li, a member of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s Cabinet, acknowledged a reporter from the Post in the audience and said: “The article made me feel that the liaison office was interfering in our university. You wrote the article in that way. That is why I called it fake news.”
He repeated the term “fake news” nine times in both Cantonese and English during his one-hour session in the studio.
In a reply to the Post, Mathieson claimed the confusion over the matter seemed to have arisen over the “all the time” reference.
“I should add that my text message to Arthur Li was never intended to be made public and I apologise if anything that it contained was written in haste,” he said.
On the webcast, Li also disputed Mathieson’s claim that he considered another job after Li did not begin a discussion with him on the possibility of a second term, despite him “coming into the fourth year of [a] five-year contract”.
Instead, Li claimed Mathieson had requested an extension in 2016, when he was “a bit into his second year” at HKU, but it was a university “rule and convention” to discuss such matters only after the vice chancellor had completed at least three of the five contracted years.
To Lau’s question on whether he had intended to renew Mathieson’s contract, Li merely said: “It is difficult to remove a university head unless he made a huge mistake. Mathieson was doing not bad. He put in much effort, especially on international affairs. I think most people would agree to renew his contract. We only needed to have a longer period of his performance on the post for review to make the decision.”
Mathieson, 58, will become Edinburgh University’s principal and vice chancellor next month. He told the Post that several factors made him respond to Edinburgh University’s interest in him – Li’s failure to engage him on a possible contract renewal, his mother’s ailing health before she died and the recent birth of his grandchild in London.
The incoming vice chancellor of HKU is Professor Zhang Xiang, a mainland-born mechanical engineering expert at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States.
Peter Mathieson on the pressures he faced at HKU
On December 18 last year, outgoing HKU vice chancellor Peter Mathieson gave an hour-long interview to the South China Morning Post where he spoke of the highs and lows of his tenure, which began in April 2014. Two articles based on the interview were published on January 8. Here is an excerpt of the Q&A where he talks about the politicisation of higher education and the pressures he faced at HKU.
Q: Of course it has become such an overpoliticised issue of who to appoint as vice chancellor, and what he should do, how he should behave. Would you be able to tell us a little bit more about how you feel [about] this kind of overpoliticisation or whether it’s good for Hong Kong’s academic development?
A: I’ve spoken and written about this publicly, I wish education and in particular higher education was not so politicised because I think there is a place for politics in the university, but it shouldn’t ever get in the way of the university dealing with its core mission, delivering excellence in teaching, research and knowledge exchange. That’s our job and politics is ever present and it’s not just in Hong Kong. There is a bit of a tendency in Hong Kong sometimes to think that some of these phenomena are only happening in Hong Kong, but actually higher education is being politicised all over the world and you got any number of examples of that. So I think it would be simpler for people like me if politics wasn’t such a complicating factor, but we also have to be realistic. We live in a very politicised world, and Hong Kong is a very politicised place and everything in Hong Kong is politicised, so to have the idea that you could exist in some sort of vacuum where you don’t have to take any notice of the political context I think would be unrealistic. I do think that people like me – I’m a kidney doctor, medical researcher and teacher by background. I’m not trained to be a media expert, I’m not trained to be a politician, and I’ve had to learn and do things that I’ve probably never expected as a university leader. But again I don’t think it’s only true in Hong Kong. I think you’ve seen this happening with the universities all over the world, so we have to recognise that that’s the reality, and we have to try and take advice where we can get advice. We have to stick to our principles, we have to try and do whatever we think is best for the university and for the society and I’ve always tried to do that.
Q: There is a very fine line between politicians expressing their views on academic affairs and actually interfering in academic affairs. In your time here at HKU was there any moment that you felt [you were] subject to some kind of interference either directly or indirectly?
A: People say to me, have I been put under pressure? My answer is yes. I’m put under pressure by everybody. So I’ve been put under pressure by politicians all the way across the political spectrum. I’ve been put under pressure by staff, by alumni, by students, by media, by everybody. My job is to soak up pressure and to make sure that I always do what is in the best interest of the university. Yes, there have been pressures, but I don’t regard that as unreasonable. My job is to lead the organisation the best I can. If people want to give me their opinions, if people want to tell me what they think I should do, they are very welcome to, but it doesn’t mean I [am] necessarily going to agree with them. But obviously I will listen to people’s opinions and together with my team I will do whatever is in the best interest of the university.
Q: Back to political interference in academic affairs, are you saying you have not encountered any such incidents?
A: I did not say that. I told you everybody puts me under pressure. I’ve encountered all sorts of statements or advice or comments by various people about all sorts of the aspects of the university, including sometimes the most mundane aspects of the university … members of the public write to me, people stop me on the street ... even taxi drivers giving me advice on how to run the university. So I get advice from everybody and that’s my job.
Q: But any advice from senior officials?
A: Yes I’ve talked to senior officials. I’ve talked to chief executive, both chief executives that I’ve worked with, education secretaries, UGC [University Grants Committee], the liaison office, the Ministry of Education in Beijing, the various press offices and all sorts of people, I have all sorts of discussion and that’s my job.
Q: But you don’t regard that as academic interference?
A: No. Because they can tell me what they think I should do but basically I do what I believe to be in the best interest of the university.
Q: So you actually had contact with the Liaison Office?
A: Oh yes, several times. That’s part of my job. All the university leaders have had contact with the liaison office. And the liaison office takes an interest in education in Hong Kong, in the same way as it does in other affairs. I consider that as part of my job. If there is a meeting that involves political officials that I’m invited [to], then I usually go and try to contribute.