Hong Kong university protest over academic freedoms

Hong Kong university protest over academic freedoms
Protesters march for academic freedom at Hong Kong University in Hong Kong on October 6, 2015, as fears grow that Beijing is interfering in the city's education.

HONG KONG - Around 2,000 protesters at Hong Kong University marched Tuesday to support academic freedom as fears grow that Beijing is interfering in the city's education system.

Anger has intensified among students and academics since the appointment of a liberal law scholar to a senior university administrative post was rejected last week.

The university council, with a number of members seen as pro-Beijing, voted against Johannes Chan becoming pro-vice chancellor at HKU.

Chan was a close colleague of pro-democracy leader Benny Tai, also an academic at HKU. Tai helped orchestrate last year's mass pro-democracy protests which brought parts of the semi-autonomous Chinese city to a standstill.

Students, professors and alumni dressed in black marched in silence through the campus Tuesday afternoon, then gathered to voice their anger.

"What we have seen very clearly is politically motivated encroachment on the autonomy of our university. We all know the next thing that will happen is the undermining or encroachment on our academic freedom," Timothy O'Leary, a philosophy professor, told the crowd.

"Today we are here determined to say we will not allow that to happen." The protest dispersed after half an hour but another is set for Friday.

HKU student union leader Billy Fung said: "Students are concerned about the importance of our institutional autonomy and the ridiculous decision made by the council." He said his group is exploring how it can get the decision against Chan revoked, including seeking a judicial review and calling for a class boycott.

Some members of the university council, the top decision-making body, are appointed by the city's unpopular leader Leung Chun-ying.

Once a British colony, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 under a deal which guaranteed the retention of its civil liberties and capitalist lifestyle for 50 years.

But teachers report increasing self-censorship over political issues for fear of losing jobs.

"There have been many incidents to do with appointments and career development of academics who are actively involved in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong," said HKU alumnus and author Eddy Lee Wai-choi.

"The present case is a blatant example. We are worried about the academic freedom in Hong Kong," he said.

In 2012 tens of thousands marched against "national education", a government proposal to introduce Beijing-centric patriotic teaching into schools. The plan was dropped.

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