Hong Kong in spat with last governor over academic freedoms

Hong Kong has hit back at former colonial governor Chris Patten after he said academic freedoms in the city were under threat, as tensions with London rise over Beijing's growing influence.

In an article published earlier this week, Britain's Patten said "the autonomy of universities and free speech itself" were at risk in Hong Kong due to interference from the Chinese authorities.

"The rationale seems to be that, because students strongly supported the pro-democracy protests in 2014, the universities where they study should be brought to heel," said Patten in an article for global opinion site Project Syndicate, referring to huge street rallies that brought parts of the city to a standstill for more than two months.

"The city's government blunders away, stirring up trouble, clearly on the orders of the government in Beijing," he added.

Patten's comments come after a liberal scholar was rejected for a senior post at Hong Kong University, prompting protests from staff and students, and a pro-Beijing stalwart was appointed its council chairman.

He also said that universities should "control their own academic governance" - Hong Kong's unpopular leader Leung Chun-ying is chancellor of all the universities in the city, a long-standing tradition.

Hong Kong's education bureau issued a statement late Wednesday chastising Patten for "acting in complete ignorance of the facts".

It said he could have revised legislation over who should head universities during his five-year tenure as the city's last governor, before the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.

"The current practice of the chief executive being the chancellor of the government-funded universities precisely stems from the then Governor Patten's decision," the statement said.

It defended Hong Kong's academic freedoms, calling them "an important social value" safeguarded by law.

The bureau also rebuked Patten for saying local government was acting on Beijing's orders.

"Such a claim is totally groundless and a sheer fabrication," it said.

Tensions in the city have heightened since the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers known for publishing titles critical of Beijing.

Four are now under official criminal investigation in China and the fifth, Lee Bo, a British passport holder, says he is "assisting" authorities there.

Lee's case sparked the most outrage as he is the only bookseller to have disappeared from Hong Kong. The others were last seen in Thailand and southern mainland China.

Patten attacked Beijing for "abducting a British citizen on the city's streets".

The booksellers case has sparked international concern, with Britain saying earlier this month that Lee Bo's disappearance was a "serious breach" of the agreement signed with Beijing before the handover, which protects Hong Kong's way of life for 50 years.

Young protesters are increasingly frustrated that they are not being heard by authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Street battles with police earlier this month left more than 100 injured, sparked by an attempted crackdown on hawkers in the commercial district of Mong Kok.