HK Chief Executive Tries to Tame HKU

Hong Kong University has become the focus of a muddy brouhaha over an attempt by the territory’s Beijing-allied Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, who also serves as the university's chancellor, to consolidate power and eliminate opposition voices.

Ironically ranked China’s best university in most international placings, HKU has become profoundly intertwined with opposition to Beijing. Last year’s protests were largely coordinated by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, an organization then led by Alex Chow, an HKU student. Benny Tai Yiu-ting, the founder and leader of “Occupy Central with Love and Peace,” is on the law faculty as an associate professor.

It is the dean of that same law faculty, Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, around whom Hong Kong’s latest political scandal whirls. It began innocuously, when in 2014 HKU’s Council accepted a proposal to create the post of Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic Staffing and Resources) with "a revised portfolio to assist the Deputy Vice-Chancellor [the Provost] in the areas relating to academic staff." The provost is the senior academic officer of the university, reporting to the president. The 10 university’s faculty deans report to him. Crucially, he advises the president on promotions, tenure decisions, extensions beyond current retirement age and hiring of new faculty

A year later, the University’s search committee unanimously recommended the “bookish” Chan. It appeared a foregone conclusion. Sun Kwok, dean of the science faculty called Chan “a very capable talent who deserves a lot of respect.” Douglas Kerr, dean of the arts faculty, described him as “outstanding, principled, fair-minded and very experienced as a university administrator.” The appointment, however, was not easy.

Smear campaign

Chan has described the campaign against him as a “cultural revolution-style” smear that began at the end of 2014, a few months before he was set to begin his tenure.

Despite the unanimous support of the search committee and his academic colleagues, the pro-Beijing newspapers Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao accused him of mishandling Occupy-related donations given to the law faculty. The university’s internal Audit Committee cleared him of any substantive wrongdoing. However, the HKU council, to the bewilderment of the audit committee, voted to label its report “interim” although it had been intended to be final.

[caption id="attachment_49923" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Johannes Chan[/caption]

With the failure of that strategy, the two pro-Beijing newspapers in February claimed that during Chan’s tenure as dean, the academic standing of HKU’s law faculty had fallen relative to other Hong Kong universities, citing unpublished research that supposedly only the government had access to. The fall in status allegedly was as a direct result of Chan and the faculty’s “over-involvement in politics.”

There lay his real sin, say Chan and a wide range of political figures and analysts. Despite keeping a low profile during last year’s Umbrella Revolution, Chan publicly identifies with the moderate wing of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. He is a member of the influential Hong Kong 2020 think tank, led by activist and former Chief Secretary Anson Chan, which put out a number of moderate pro-democracy compromise solutions during the Occupy demonstrations last year.

As dean, he sheltered and abetted more radical pro-democracy figures such as Benny Tai, who conceived Occupy Central, and Robert Chung, a pollster who organized last year’s informal referendum in favor of democracy. Nonetheless, over the course of the crisis he did call for students to consider withdrawing from the occupied area and argued that civil nomination was not the only form of democratic nomination process, placing him clearly on the moderate wing of the democratic spectrum

It was his support for democracy, moderate though it is, according to numerous commentators, that prompted the HKU council’s latest decision to delay his appointment until that of a new provost who would be his immediate superior.

Chan himself claimed on radio that “even the average person could see the HKU Council's decision didn't make sense and it was hard to believe there was no political interference.” Influential former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau openly said that that “some people inside the government, who have tremendous influence, called some HKU Council members and requested them to veto the decision by the selection committee which suggested Chan.”

Who are these people?

The council that voted in this delay, while nominally representing the interests of HKU, in fact does anything but. Members of the university, be they academics or students, make up a minority in a council with an academic:lay ratio of 1:2. Six of the 20 members are directly appointed by the chancellor, CY Leung. It’s a body that is uniquely susceptible to political pressure.

While the stalling tactics now seem set to continue into the foreseeable future, there is disagreement about the likely end-game for Chan. The first likely scenario would be to make the situation so uncomfortable that he chooses voluntarily to “resign.” Just last week, the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily called for Chan to “give up his candidacy as the best choice to safeguard the HKU and the social consensus.”

Chan shows no sign of backing down, making a second option more likely. The new provost, who will almost certainly be sympathetic to CY Leung and Beijing, could easily decide that the role Chan is set to fulfil is actually an superfluous one, and that the provost be able just to add the responsibilities to his own portfolio. Either way, the Beijing establishment is evidently willing to fight tooth and nail to block Chan’s appointment.

Autonomy at stake

This scandal now, though, has become about far more than just Professor Johannes Chan, but about protecting the academic freedom and autonomy that Hong Kong and HKU hold so dear. Chan himself has said that “if it were only an issue to do with my personal career, I would have withdrawn already … However, this crisis has become a challenge to universities’ persistence towards academic freedom and institutional autonomy. By withdrawing … it is equivalent to giving up on the insistence on academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”

For Chan and his associates, it is that autonomy that makes Hong Kong a fundamentally different, better and freer place than the mainland that threatens to subsume it. It is that autonomy that allows expressions of dissent and the exercise of fundamental democratic rights to protest. And it is that autonomy that, in all corners of Hong Kong society, Leung is trying to extinguish.

But this isn’t the first time academic autonomy at HKU has been threatened by the Chief Executive’s office. Back in 2000 Robert Chung, the same HKU pollster involved with Occupy today, was still running HKU’s Public Opinion Program, releasing regular polls on the popularity (or lack thereof) of the then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa.

After extensive political pressure, the university had threatened to “dry up” Chung’s funding should he continue to release polls so critical of Tung. In 2000, the outcry was so great once the allegations were revealed that not only was Chung able to continue his program, now the best-respected polling program in Hong Kong, but two senior figures in the university were forced to resign.

The parallels between the situations of Robert Chung in 2000 and Johannes Chan in 2015 don’t paint an optimistic picture. While both affairs have led to extensive criticism from pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong, the political situation today is far more polarized, with the government ever more willing shed the pretense of democracy to accomplish its objectives. A widespread and deep-rooted backlash is no longer enough to persuade the Chief Executive to change course. Perhaps the only area for optimism is, paradoxically, the fact that Leung still feels the need to operate in the shadows and exert pressure on the existing system rather than bypassing it altogether. But that’s scant comfort for Johannes Chan and his allies.

Regardless of how this ends, today’s scandal at Hong Kong University indicates above all that the Hong Kong of tomorrow is likely to be a place far less congenial to democracy and academic freedom than was the Hong Kong of the recent past.

Archie Hall is an Asia Sentinel intern.