By: Our Correspondent

Hong Kong University’s alumni body, HKU Convocation, is expected to hold an emergency meeting on Sept. 1 to vote on a joint statement issued by all 10 HKU faculty deans urging its governing council to respect institutional autonomy. It is the latest development in deepening concern over academic freedom at arguably Asia’s most respected university.

The emergency meeting has been called because of a row in late July when a group of students stormed the university’s council meeting to protest its decision to further delay the appointment of a pro-vice-chancellor, Johannes Chan Man-mun, at the apparent behest of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who in addition to being the chief executive is the university’s chancellor.

As Asia Sentinel reported on Aug.17, the struggle for the university’s political freedom has most recently manifested itself in the delay of Chan’s appointment. Crucially, he would advise the university’s president on promotions, tenure decisions, extensions beyond current retirement age and hiring of new faculty – and academics who might not want to new to Beijing’s line.

Leung is also believed to disapprove of Chan due to his close association with another HKU law lecturer, Benny Tai, a founder of last year’s pro-democracy Occupy Central movement that protested in the streets of Hong Kong for weeks, demanding that Beijing implement long-promised universal suffrage to elect the next chief executive in 2017. Chan was Tai’s superior until June.

It is uncertain, without polling, to see which way the alumni will vote. There are plenty of conservatives who have graduated from the institution who might like to see a saddle and bridle on the unruly faculty.

University Council aligned with Leung

But there are questions whether the council would listen to them if they support the deans. That is because just how deeply university appointments are 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 whose main job is to glad-hand the alumni for endowments.

However in the case of Hong Kong University the chancellor is not just the government’s chief executive but can exercise real power through the university council. This body, which is charged with overseeing management of the university’s human and financial resources, has huge power if he or she cares to use it even though only four of its 24 members are university employees.

That potential power explains why members of the council have been in receipt of calls from the Liaison Office, Beijing’s power center in Hong Kong, to prevent the election of Professor Chan to one of the senior positions in the university hierarchy.

The council in turn is susceptible to the influence of Beijing and to Leung, because of its composition. Rather than being broadly representative of community interests that ensure that it meets its obligations it is dominated by past and present officials and safe establishment representatives. It is headed by a former medical legislator who was removed as head of the government’s Hospital Authority for failures during the SARS crisis but became a member of the government’s Executive Council and then HKU Council head, appointed by the Chief Executive.

Of the 23 other members, six are directly appointed by Leung. They include a pro-Beijing legislator, two bankers, a director of New World property and bus group and Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a member of the Hong Kong’s most influential family, former education minister and university head but often referred to as “King Arthur” for his arrogance.

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 the 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. The Chief Executive is its Chancellor and vice-chancellor is Sir David KP Li the banker (and brother of Arthur Li) better known outside Hong Kong for insider trading in the shares of Dow Jones of which he was a director prior to its takeover by Rupert Murdoch.

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

The above structure explains why Hong Kong’s – and perhaps Asia’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. But they also know that the Liaison Office is on the case and will keep records of who votes for what.