Action on HK University Post Shows Beijing's Hand Again

For the second time in a week, Beijing has showed its hand in trying to defang Hong Kong’s democracy movement despite promises of independence made in the Basic Law that went into effect in 1997

Irritated over last year’s pro-democracy Occupy Movement, which tied up the city center for more than two months, it has used its clout through Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to deny the appointment of a political liberal to the post of pro-vice chancellor in charge of academic staffing and resources at prestigious Hong Kong University.

The university’s governing council turned down Johannes Chan Man-mun for the post on a secret 12-8 vote on the night of Sept. 29. The decision has been roundly criticized by students and alumni, who say they may sue. They view the decision as a threat to the independence of the university, one of the most respected in Asia, and ironically considered China’s best academic institution.

Asia Sentinel reported earlier this week that Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption on Sept. 24 arrested a waiter and charged him with trying spend HK$400,000 – a considerable amount for a waiter – to bribe or persuade various people to stand as candidates in district council elections, a criminal offense under the electoral law. These were apparent attempts to split the vote in some constituencies enough to allow pro-Beijing candidates to win in hostile districts.

Under the thumb

As to the university vote on Chan, while most such governing councils are independent, the council at Hong Kong University is dominated by individuals with ties to China’s ruling Communist Party.

Chan’s appointment, at first considered non-controversial, has been hanging fire for months because of his ties to the Occupy Movement and to HKU colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who co-founded the movement.

The pretense that HKU appointment decisions are not increasingly politicized is shown up by the power structure. At most universities, power lies with the Vice-Chancellor or equivalent president, assisted by deputies and a Senate of academics. The Chancellor is normally a figurehead.

However in the case of HKU, CY Leung is the chancellor. He has the ability to exercise real power through the university council and for the first time he appears to have done so. This body, which is charged with overseeing management of the university’s human and financial resources has huge power if it cares to use it even though only four of its 24 members are university employees.

That potential explains why members of the council came under pressure from the Liaison Office, Beijing’s power center in Hong Kong, to prevent the election of Chan.

The Council’s susceptibility to the influence of Beijing and Leung stems from its composition. Rather than being broadly representative of community interests, it is dominated by past and present officials and other quasi-government representatives.

The council is headed by a former medical sector legislator who was removed as head of the government’s Hospital Authority for failures during the 2003 SARS crisis but became a yes-man member of the government’s Executive Council and then HKU Council head, appointed by the Chief Executive.

Like minds

Of the 23 other members, six are directly appointed by Leung. They include a pro-Beijing legislator, two bankers and a director of New World, the property and bus group long known for its close relations with top officials. Another is Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a member of one of Hong Kong’s most influential families, and a former education minister who is often referred to as “King Arthur” for his arrogance. His academic credentials are widely believed to be rather less weighty than his family connections.

Six are appointed by the Council itself, ensuring continuity of the like-minded. This group includes an accountant, a tame academic and Abraham Shek, who represents property developer interests in the Legislative Council.

Then there are two elected by HKU’s Court, including Rosanna Wong, a civil servant turned politician, head of the government’s Housing Authority and now a non-executive director of Hong Kong’s two most powerful companies, HSBC and Cheung Kong.

The court itself is a vast and largely ceremonial body which is supposed to represent broad community interests in the work of the university. With Leung as the chief executive and chancellor, the vice-chancellor is Sir David KP Li, a banker (and brother of Arthur Li) better known outside Hong Kong for insider trading in the shares of Dow Jones when he was a director prior to its takeover by Rupert Murdoch.

The Chief Executive appoints 20 member of the Court which also comprises the members of the Council, the Senate and others.

The above structure explains why Hong Kong’s best-known university is susceptible to political pressures and will become ever more so while the Chief Executive remains the creature of the Liaison office. Many members of the Council may be uneasy at the pressures being applied in the case of Chan, whose academic qualities are only disputed by Beijing attack-dogs in the media.

There have been suggestions that the vice-chancellor of the university, Peter Mathieson, should resign over a decision that so directly conflicts with academic freedom and places the university under the political thumb of the government. However, this is considered unlikely. Mathieson, an import from Britain where he was Dean of the Medicine Faculty at Bristol University, was only chosen after a long search, with many potential candidates viewing the position as a poisoned chalice. His appointment in early 2014 was widely criticized for his lack of experience in Hong Kong or Asia. He has survived a year of political turmoil in Hong Kong and now as a man of ambition in academic administration seems unlikely to want to surrender a well-paid position over principle.