HK university at centre of political interference storm

HK university at centre of political interference storm
Hong Kong's Chief Executive CY Leung has been accused of meddling with nominations and appointments at the University of Hong Kong.

Concerns are mounting in Hong Kong that there has been attempted political interference in academic affairs, possibly at the direction of Beijing, in the aftermath of the pro-democracy Occupy movement.

In particular, the city's most eminent tertiary institution, the University of Hong Kong (HKU), is under scrutiny over charges that Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying's administration tried to scupper the potential appointment of Professor Johannes Chan as its new pro-vice-chancellor.

Prof Chan, a constitutional law and human rights expert, headed its law faculty - where colleagues include the controversial Occupy Central organiser Benny Tai - for 12 years until he stepped down last July, making way for former National University of Singapore don Michael Hor.

Separately, Mr Leung has also been accused of vetoing nominations at HKU and the Polytechnic University for honorary degrees.

The Chief Executive serves as chancellor of all public universities in Hong Kong. But it is a post that is largely ceremonial.

Mr Leung has sidestepped or denied the allegations of meddling.

In a statement last week, the Chief Executive's Office said that Mr Leung and his government have not intervened in the HKU council's deliberations on Prof Chan's possible appointment.

But a senior policy adviser to Mr Leung, Ms Sophia Kao, was later reported by public broadcaster RTHK to have admitted discussing with unidentified people whether the academic was fit for the pro-vice-chancellor post.

Former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau has also reported that "some very influential people in the government" had called HKU council members to pressure them to strike Prof Chan off the list.

This follows a sustained campaign last month by pro-Beijing newspapers attacking his track record as law dean.

Mr Leung, meanwhile, deflected accusations he derailed nominations for university honorary degrees, saying he "cannot comment on any cases" that he has dealt with while in public office.

Beyond that, there has been little hard evidence of government interference.

But in the charged atmosphere following the end of the Occupy movement on Dec 15, hints of such moves from the top have been viewed with suspicion.

The supposed onslaught on academia comes as Beijing visibly ratchets up pressure on the city, with rhetoric about the need for Hong Kong's education secretary to be placed under the control of Beijing and warnings of "subversive" sentiments.

A separate controversy over media freedom also erupted two weeks ago when Mr Lau's successor at Ming Pao, Mr Chong Tien Siong, made a last-minute decision to downplay an investigative report on the 1989 Tiananmen incident.

A source close to the government tells The Straits Times that Beijing "has been unhappy with HKU", seeing it as a hotbed of activism since Mr Li Keqiang, now the Chinese premier, visited the campus in 2011.

A row broke out then over what students and faculty say were heavy-handed tactics in locking up three student activists who tried to cross security lines to get to Mr Li.

More recently, student leaders from the university, including Alex Chow, were at the frontline of the Occupy movement.

Prof Chan himself "is also seen as someone who chang fan diao (sings the contrarian tune) from Beijing's interpretation of the Basic Law", adds the source.

To register their concerns, a group of 20 academics from various institutes have banded together to call for HKU to conduct a formal investigation into the allegations. As of yesterday, 1,056 educators have signed the petition.

Education policy academic Choi Po King, one of those leading the effort, said: "It is not just the academia's reputation at stake, because if there is any kind of political interference, the quality of education, research and ideas will drop, and the whole society will suffer."

This article was first published on February 17, 2015.
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