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HKU council controversy

Five things to know about Arthur Li’s appointment as HKU council chairman

A strong ally of Hong Kong’s chief executive and a confrontational style virtually guarantee that ‘King Arthur’ will be a polarising leader

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 1:55pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 2:51pm

1. Who is Arthur Li?

Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, 70, was born in Hong Kong in 1945 into the city’s powerful Li family. He is the grandson of the co-founder of the Bank of East Asia, Li Koon-chun, and brother of its current chairman, David Li Kwok-po. He studied medicine at Cambridge University in Britain.

He returned to the city in 1982 and became the founding chairman of the department of surgery at Chinese University. He was promoted to the post of dean of the university’s medical faculty in 1992; four years later, Li secured an appointment as the university’s fourth vice-chancellor.

READ MORE: ‘Very poor choice’: Howls of protest as Arthur Li is appointed Hong Kong University’s governing council chairman

But during his 14 years with the medical faculty, Li’s leadership style led some to refer to him as ‘King Arthur’ and even ‘the Tsar’. Li insisted he was by nature a “very gentle” person who enjoyed company and conversation.

Li left the university in 2002, and at the invitation of then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, he joined the administration as education chief.

Li retreated from the political limelight in 2007 after serving five years in government. He made a comeback in 2012 after he backed Leung Chun-ying for the city’s top job. At the start of his term as chief executive, Leung appointed Li a non-official member of the Executive Council.

In March, Leung appointed Li to serve as a member of the HKU council. On Thursday, Li was appointed the council’s chairman.

2. Why is Li so controversial?

People who know Li said that, because he served on Chinese University’s medical faculty for 14 years, there was a rivalry between the faculty and HKU’s and that Li was known for disliking HKU.

When Li was still Chinese University’s vice-chancellor, he proposed to merge the university with the University of Science and Technology to create a world-class university. But the plan was quickly rejected after concerns arose from staff at both universities.

When Li became the city’s education chief, he was alleged to have exerted pressure on the Institute of Education to merge with Chinese University. He was accused of saying the institute would be “raped” if it refused to agree to a merger.

Observers believed that Li was keen on merging Chinese University with other institutions because he wanted the university’s status to surpass that of HKU.

He returned to the headlines last year ahead of the pro-democracy Occupy movement. When students staged a class boycott in September last year, Li declared: “Well, who cares?”

He added that if students were serious they should quit school. He also compared the boycotting students to the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution.

READ MORE: Arthur Li appointment as HKU council chairman discovered hours earlier than intended thanks to technical glitch

Just days after Li was appointed a member of HKU’s governing council, he criticised some professors for allegedly not attending to their duties in performing research and teaching students, thus precipitating the university’s fall in international rankings. Many staff members were angry at his comments and protested.

On July 28, angry students stormed a council meeting after it again voted to delay discussion on promoting pro-democratic scholar Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun to a key managerial post. Chan’s candidacy was ultimately defeated.

Li described the students’ actions as akin to “Hong Kong’s Cultural Revolution”, and his comments again triggered protests from students.

3. What are Li’s top responsibilities as HKU’s council chairman?

The 23-member HKU council – excluding the chairman – has six members appointed by the chief executive and six members appointed by the council from outside the university. These 12 members constitute an important voice within the council, given that there are only eight university student, staff and management representatives on the body.

The chairman heads up a nominations committee in charge of recommending outside council members for appointment by the council.

The chairman is also responsible for setting council meeting agenda and has the power to decide whether a member who has a conflict of interest on a matter for council discussion can speak or vote on the matter.

Regarding confidential documents and other information circulated within the council, the chairman has the discretion to disclose the materials to people not on the council on a ‘need-to-know’ basis.

The chairman can also decide not to circulate restricted information before council meetings and request that council members return the materials after the meetings.

In between council meetings, the chairman has the authority to act on the council’s behalf to handle routine business such as signing documents and implementing matters already agreed by the council.

The chairman also has the power to call a special meeting when an urgent matter arises, or even tackle a matter directly on his or her own, although the guidebook advises the chairman to be careful not to make decisions in this manner.

4. What challenges await Li?

Li’s key challenges included mending the divide within the university, responding to students and teachers’ call for a reform of the council’s structure, and safeguarding the university’s international reputation.

HKU remained deeply divided over the council’s denial of Chan’s promotion as pro-vice-chancellor in September, and it will be difficult for Li to mend the split within the council and the university.

Li was regarded as a driving force opposing Chan’s appointment. On November 29, in a poll organised by the HKU Convocation – a statutory body comprising 165,450 graduates and staff – over 98 per cent of the 4,454 who cast ballots voted overwhelmingly against Li’s expected appointment as the university council’s chairman.

READ MORE: ‘No’ to Arthur Li as chairman: Hong Kong University alumni vote against CY Leung’s top aide to lead council

It could be difficult for Li to win the trust of students and alumni. But councillor Joseph Chan Cho-wai said this morning that although he was disappointed with the appointment, he believed “the situation might not be too bad if Li was willing to change his approach and start to value teachers and students’ opinion”.

Professor Timothy O’Leary, another councillor who opposed Li’s appointment, said the most important issue for the council to address was “the need for a full review of the structure and operation of the council”.

Some critics believed that the city’s top official held too much power to appoint six members to the council. It was unsure how Li would respond to this concern.

On the academic front, there were reports suggesting that HKU was declining in several international rankings.

In March, the university fell out of the top 50 universities in the world, according to an annual reputation ranking by the London-based magazine Times Higher Education.

5. In view of Li’s past controversies, why was he appointed?

The chief executive has a long working relationship with Li and the pair became close allies in recent years. They were fellow members of the Executive Council from 2002 to 2007. Li was one of the Election Committee members who nominated Leung for the 2012 chief executive election.

One episode illustrated their closeness.

During a televised debate held a week before the chief executive election in March 2012, Henry Tang Ying-yen, Leung’s arch-rival, attacked Leung’s integrity by claiming he had spoken of using riot police and tear gas against protesters opposed to the introduction of national security legislation at a “high-level meeting” in 2003. Tang, the former chief secretary, revealed later he was referring to an Exco meeting held after a massive protest on July 1.

READ MORE: ‘Absolutely unfair’: CY Leung blasts HKU alumni vote of no confidence in Dr Leong Che-hung

Li came to Leung’s defence, saying Tang had put Leung in an unfair position because other Exco members at the time could not reveal details of the meetings due to confidentiality. Li said he found it strange that Tang revealed details of Exco meetings during the debate.

Some observers said Leung’s confrontational style was similar to Li’s.

Leung claimed in January this year that there was significant information indicating that foreign powers were behind the organisation of the Occupy Central movement.

It was an apparent reference to leaked emails that showed Occupy co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a legal scholar at HKU, had forwarded HK$1.45 million in donations from at least one anonymous donor to his employer over several months last year to cover some of the expenses incurred by the Occupy movement.

Some analysts believed that Leung chose Li as chairman of the HKU council because he considered Li the person best-suited to steer the governing body of the university, known for its liberal leanings.