Former HKU Law Dean Charges Chief Executive with Political Interference

Johannes Chan, the former dean of the Hong Kong University law faculty who was denied appointment as a vice chancellor a year ago, has taken aim at Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying for academic interference in university affairs.

Chan has co-authored a new paper with Douglas Kerr for Journal of Academic Freedom, the scholarly publication of the American Association of University Professors, concludes that "There is systematic interference in university affairs by the government." Chan’s paper also says the controversy surrounding his failed appointment is just the latest in a series of attempts by government to interfere in academia since the handover.

There has been growing concern across a wide range of political and academic matters in Hong Kong that Beijing is leaning on the territory despite the promise in the Basic Law – the territory’s mini-constitution –that China would keep its hands off – a promise of “one country, two systems” through 2047. But since the ascension of Xi Jinping as China’s supreme leader, critics say that promise is in danger.

Chan thinks the greatest threat to academic freedom comes from the government and politics, and believes research that has anything to do with China will aggravate the situation. In an email interview with Asia Sentinel, Chan says “The current system allows the head of government to interfere with academic freedom. Whether this will happen may depend on the individual CE. If we believe in the rule of law and would rather have academic freedom be defended by institutional and systemic safeguards than on self-restraint of individual CE, the system should be changed.”

There is "no justification for the chief executive’s being the chancellor of tertiary institutions and being conferred the power to appoint a significant number of members, let alone the chair, of the governance bodies of all tertiary institutions in Hong Kong,” the authors write. The chair is CY Leung, who is extremely unpopular with the city’s voters and residents.

The paper also cites Leung’s ability as chancellor to appoint members to university councils as part of the reason for government inference in academia. Using Arthur Li’s appointment to the University of Hong Kong’s council as an example, the paper charges that, “The concern is real, as illustrated by the chief executive’s insistence on appointing a member to be the council chair of the University of Hong Kong despite overwhelming opposition to his appointment from all parties involved.”

A year ago, Chan was embroiled in controversy surrounding his recommendation by the University of Hong Kong’s search committee to be the Pro Vice Chancellor of the school, a senior position in charge of staffing and resources. The controversy began when the pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspapers Wen Wei Po and Tai Kung Pao attacked Chan for “meddling in politics.”

The charge stemmed from Chan’s role as Dean of Law, where Occupy Central founder Benny Tai Yiu-Ting serves as associate Professor.

Eventually, the university’s council rejected the committee’s recommendation denying Chan the post. Although academic freedom is guaranteed in the basic law, the committee’s recommendation was overridden.

In 2000, Robert Chung, who runs polls on the Hong Kong leader’s popularity at the Social Research of the University of Hong Kong, was asked by the Chief Executive at the time, Tung Chee-Hwa, through the University’s Vice Chancellor Patrick Cheng Yiu-Chung, to discontinue the popularity polls. The government claimed at the time these polls served little academic value.

When Chung refused, the controversy was exposed, leading to the resignation of Cheng and his pro-vice Chancellor at the time. Chan’s paper calls this “a classic case of direct interference with an academic activity” by the government.

Another example Chan cites involves the Hong Kong Institute of Education and its 2007 proposal to merge with the larger Chinese University of Hong Kong. At the time, Vice Chancellor of Hong Kong Institute of Education Paul Morris wanted to establish the school as an independent university. But Fanny Law Fan Chiu-Fun, the Permanent Secretary of Education at the time, favored merging the two schools.

At the time there were allegations of government applying pressure to Morris to dismiss academic staff that were critical of the reform, as well as silencing critics of the reform. Eventually a government inquiry was opened and found that Law “did not express her opinions openly and through proper channels, but instead in a manner with the semblance, if not also the substance, of intimidation and reprisal. The Commission disapproves such behavior unequivocally.”

When asked by Asia Sentinel about Chan and Kerr’s statement of the Chief Executive having no justification as role of Chancellor, the Education Bureau responded that the government upholds academic freedom and the Chief Executive’s role as Chancellor “has been operating effectively over the years. We urge the community to uphold and respect the respective statutory provisions."