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Universities in Hong Kong

HKUST’s new president candid about contact with Beijing but shies away from hot topic of separatism on campus

Professor Wei Shyy, 62, met staff and students, and took questions from the media, after the university governing council confirmed his appointment on Thursday

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 January, 2018, 6:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 January, 2018, 10:52pm

The newly appointed head of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) on Thursday said he had met Beijing’s representative in the city but had “never received any advice” from officials.

Professor Wei Shyy, 62, a Taiwan-born US national and currently the provost of HKUST, told journalists that it would not benefit the university to refuse to talk to any parties.

But he did not directly answer questions on whether he would allow pro-independence discussions on campus, or how he would handle cases of students wanting to set up groups to discuss the feasibility of separatism.

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Shyy met the media after the university’s governing council confirmed he would be HKUST’s fourth president from this September, once current head Tony Chan Fan-cheong steps down.

He would remain as provost, executive vice-president and chair professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at HKUST till then.

Shyy was responding to questions that stemmed from the University of Hong Kong’s outgoing vice chancellor, Peter Mathieson, saying he had met Beijing’s representative in the city several times.

“All the university leaders have had contact with the liaison office,” Mathieson told the Post.

Mathieson also revealed he felt pressure from “everybody” – politicians across the spectrum, alumni, students, staff and the media.

Shyy was asked specifically if he had met Beijing’s representatives, if the meeting was about his work and what transpired during the conversations. He replied to say he had met officials “on different occasions”.

HKUST ranked No 3 university in Asia, ahead of HKU

“In all the participation that I’ve had in HKUST or any university business, never once to my knowledge or in my experience was I asked or [was it] even hinted, to follow any particular policy or advice from the Liaison Office. In fact, I never received any advice from the Liaison Office,” Shyy said.

On the concern that communication between universities and Beijing’s representative could be seen as “interfering” with the school’s autonomy, Shyy said there was a need to be “reasonable to all sides.”

The thinking that university leaders were biased just because they had met certain officials required further “justification”, he said.

The academic, who joined HKUST in August 2010 from the University of Michigan, said university leaders would not refuse to talk to any organisations, including the Liaison Office, as it “would not serve the university’s interests” by doing so.

“We need to have willingness and be open to listen to each other,” Shyy said.

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Shyy was more reticent when it came to questions on students promoting Hong Kong’s independence from China, similar to Chinese University’s new vice-chancellor Rocky Tuan Sung-chi, when he met the media earlier this month.

Pro-independence banners and posters appeared around Chinese University’s campus last September, resulting in clashes between students and a pro-Beijing group, while in November, youngsters from 18 schools and universities banded together to distribute separatism-themed fliers and set up street booths promoting their cause.

I’m not sure if he’ll be able to solve any politically controversial issues but if he’s open minded, I don’t believe he will suppress our freedom of speech just because students have differing opinions
First-year student Ivan Lee on the new CUHK president

Earlier this month, a new club was set up under the Chinese University student union claiming to study the feasibility of Hong Kong independence and provide a platform for discussion on the topic, among other things.

Shyy said HKUST would stand by the joint statement it signed with nine other universities last September in which they made plain they did not support “Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law”, but stopped short of condemning independence advocacy.

On Thursday, Shyy said: “On any individual cases, I would love to talk to the students in the university so we can have a better mutual understanding.”

In the afternoon, he met more than 300 staff and students in a closed-door session.

Ivan Lee, a first-year student who attended the session, said: “Based on first impressions, he seems to be quite open-minded.

“I’m not sure if he’ll be able to solve any politically controversial issues but if he’s open-minded, I don’t believe he will suppress our freedom of speech just because students have differing opinions.”

Donny Siu Koon–ming, chairman of the HKUST staff association, said he was confident in Shyy’s ability to lead the school, describing him as “demanding but also reasonable”.

Should any conflicts arise or if students were involved in politically controversial matters, Shyy was “the kind of person to listen, communicate and find a solution”, Siu said.