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Universities in Hong Kong

Councillors at University of Hong Kong must build mutual trust with combative chairman known as ‘King Arthur’, outgoing member says

  • Known for his authoritarian approach, Arthur Li has been reappointed for a second three-year term
  • Former staff representative Joseph Chan said he built a working relationship with the chairman over time
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2019, 7:33am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2019, 1:45pm

Members of the University of Hong Kong’s governing council should try to build a working relationship with the chairman even if ideological differences cannot be reconciled, a professor who is leaving the group has said.

Joseph Chan Cho-wai, a political-science professor who has served on the council as a staff representative for the past three years, gave his advice after Arthur Li Kwok-cheung was reappointed by Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor for a second three-year term to oversee the operation of the city’s oldest university.

The move met with a mixed response, with some praising Li’s tough leadership, while others have reservations about the combative style of governance of a man nicknamed “King Arthur”.

In the past, Li raised eyebrows when he criticised Occupy co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting, and other liberal scholars, for “not doing their job”. He also mocked student protesters, and said they had behaved as if they had “taken drugs” after they stormed the first meeting he chaired.

In an interview with the Post, Chan said he ran for the council in November 2015 over concerns the backlash from the Occupy movement would lead to political interference in the way the university was run.

Before he was elected, Chan co-organised a silent march on the campus to protest against the council’s rejection of leading legal scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun’s appointment as one of the university’s vice-presidents.

Critics and teaching staff linked the issue with the pro-democracy Occupy sit-ins, which brought parts of the city to a standstill for 79 days in 2014. Tai taught in the law faculty where Johannes Chan once served as dean.

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Li’s first appointment as the council chairman in January 2016 deepened the worries of some members of staff, and students.

But, after working with Li on the council for three years, Chan said the chairman had kept the promise he made not to get involved in the day-to-day running of the university.

“Initially I was sceptical that Li would get his hands on the university and the faculties, I think he didn’t … At least students still enjoy political freedom,” he said.

But, he said Li was aggressive, and held “strong views” whenever he was presiding over the council’s deliberations on student disciplinary issues, or matters relating to the council’s reform.

While Li would not directly point to certain scholars’ political views, Chan said Li sometimes challenged the faculty of law’s academic performance.

“He would sometimes even think professors should only sit in their offices from 9am to 5pm. But Li has been a professor himself too – that’s not how things work,” Chan said.

Although Chan did not agree with Li on a range of issues, he said he found a way to work with the chairman and the other council members.

Chan said he knew that as a minority within the council, he had to maintain communications with Li to avoid “simply being written off” and labelled as the opposition.

“It doesn’t work the same way with the Legislative Council or in a political party … in the university council it’s about making sound arguments, instead of being vocal or putting up a fight,” Chan said.

Chan said he had built up a relationship with Li based on mutual trust, with the chairman slowly adopting some of his proposals, and making noticeably fewer criticisms of Tai and students.

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With fears surrounding possible political interference diminishing, and as the political atmosphere appeared less confrontational, Chan decided not to seek re-election in November.

And despite now being on the outside, Chan said one of the challenges HKU faced would be the pressure from the pro-Beijing camp to dismiss Tai, if the Occupy leader, who is awaiting a verdict for causing or citing others to cause public nuisance during the Occupy movement, was found guilty.

“Li may not understand this, but all Tai did was civil disobedience – that does not bring the university into disrepute,” Chan said.

“Someone may be ahead of our time, and propose all crazy ideas, but the university should be open to all thoughts. It would be a mistake for the university to dismiss Tai simply because of his role in the Occupy movement.”