HKU legal scholar Johannes Chan ‘lets go’ of controversy and makes peace with council chief Arthur Li
But long-time law school dean, rejected for senior managerial position at city’s oldest university, urges new vice chancellor to stand his ground
Three years after Johannes Chan Man-mun was snubbed for a top job at the University of Hong Kong, the legal scholar shook hands with the man who opposed his appointment.
At a law school event last month, he broke the ice with HKU council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung. They engaged in what Chan called “courtesy calls”.
In 2015, Li openly objected to Chan’s appointment as pro-vice-chancellor at the city’s oldest university.
Li had taken issue with Chan’s lack of a PhD, a leaked recording showed, even though the scholar was the first person to be named an honorary senior counsel in the city’s legal profession. Later, Chan hit back and said Li was “not the type of person” who should be council chairman.
“It was time to let go,” the former law dean said recently. “I insisted our faculty should invite Arthur Li to the event, as we have to respect his position [as council chairman].”
“It was unpleasant to be at the centre of a saga,” Chan further recalled. “At the end of the day, this institution has to go on ... Life has to go on.”
The controversy surrounding the pro-vice-chancellor position first gained attention when pro-Beijing newspapers in late 2014 revealed Chan had been recommended for the post. A fierce attack from the pro-establishment camp over Chan's ties to liberal colleague and Occupy Central founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting ensued. Delayed for almost a year by HKU’s council, Chan’s appointment was finally rejected in September 2015.
Li, who was a council member at the time and not yet chairman, had mocked Chan as a “party secretary” to the city’s democratic camp and lacking a doctoral degree, according to a leaked recording of a council meeting.
Another council member, Leonie Ki Man-fung, had separately accused Chan of using “external and internal forces” to get his appointment approved. Ki was also invited to the same law school event.
Chan, dean for 12 years, shared his reflections on the HKU controversy in his latest book, Paths of Justice. He also explored the significance of the rule of law by offering some of his most memorable anecdotes and questioned the government’s contention that not upholding the law was automatically the same as undermining it.
Chan said he harboured no animosity towards those involved in the saga, alluding to a feeling of “sadness, rather than anger”.
Among the few people he thanked in the book was former vice chancellor Peter Mathieson, whom he described as being “under tremendous political pressure”.
And despite experiencing more than 12 months of turbulence, Chan said he never thought of quitting, because the controversy over his appointment had become something greater than himself.
“At least I was tenured in my teaching position and had some seniority,” he explained. “Many junior staff members told me to hold on, saying, ‘If you don’t hold on, we’d be forced to write and research controversial issues less in the future’.”
Chan said he did not feel the decision to sink his candidacy had come directly from Beijing. Rather, he was told by people engaged with the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong that it was concerned with his holding “the most powerful position in the entire university”.
“The position of pro-vice-chancellor oversees managerial decisions and finance ... The office felt it could not let someone it didn’t trust take up the position,” he said.
As HKU prepared to welcome new vice chancellor Zhang Xiang, Chan’s advice for him was to stand his ground when leading the university and listen to views from all people.
“He does not need to be antagonistic against the council, but he needs to stick to his principles, while making sure he gets his message across,” Chan said.