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Hong Kong’s fractious politics challenging for universities, says Tony Chan – the third man to leave a top job early in past year

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s outgoing president Tony Chan said political storms of Occupy movement and recent calls for city’s independence from China had put universities ‘between rock and hard place’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2018, 11:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 August, 2018, 11:50am

Heading the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has become more complicated in recent years because of the city’s fractious politics, its outgoing president and acclaimed scientist Tony Chan Fan-cheong said, on the eve of his departure to another institution.

“There have been enormous changes in Hong Kong over the past decade, with the greatest change in politics,” Chan said last week. He will join King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia in September.

The 66-year-old mathematician, who was headhunted from the United States to join HKUST in 2009, cited the political storms of Occupy movement in 2014 – in which many students took part the sit-ins to demand greater democracy – and the recent tide of calls for the city’s independence from China.

“As the university is a microcosm of the society, the stance of the president, and the school, is between a rock and a hard place,” Chan told the Post.

He is the third university head in Hong Kong to depart earlier than expected in the last year, heading off a year before the contract for his second term expires.

HKUST is the second-ranked university in the city, and top-ranked University of Hong Kong also saw its head Peter Mathieson leave early, while No 3 institution Chinese University’s vice chancellor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu did the same.

Chan, who was born and raised in Hong Kong before spending about 40 years in the US, pointed to the controversy over pro-independence banners and posters at several universities last year.

“We may put it simply that any illegal acts are banned. But are [calls for] Hong Kong independence violating laws?” he asked, saying the schools were thrown into difficult situations with no simple answers.

The 10 university heads in Hong Kong eventually issued a joint statement, which included a line: “We do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law.”

Chan dismissed any government pressure behind the rare statement, but admitted the process of drafting and getting everyone to agree was difficult.

What was unfortunate, he said, was that public attention was so focused on the issue instead of the university’s strong performance. The 27-year-old school was first in the latest Times Higher Education young university rankings.

“Worst of all, society has been torn apart and social development becomes stagnant,” he added.

His advice to his successor – Professor Wei Shyy, the current executive vice-president – was: “The advantage of Hong Kong is its internationalism … Don’t lean to one side.”

To students and youngsters, Chan said: “Don’t let politics or ideology colour your views [in deciding career opportunities].”

He urged them to be open-minded and look for career opportunities outside the city, including in mainland China. HKUST recently announced plans to open a new campus in Guangzhou as efforts to integrate Hong Kong, Macau and nine mainland cities via China’s Greater Bay Area project pick up speed.