Pro-establishment figures in Hong Kong, dismissing students’ growing political activism in recent years, claim that universities have become “too politicised”. This is true, but not in the sense that these figures claim. Universities in Hong Kong have become too politicised because they are being directly influenced by agents primarily accountable to the chief executive, who is in turn primarily accountable to Beijing, a violator of academic freedoms.
In a city that is proudly home to some of the best research universities in the region, with academics and students fully capable of governing themselves, it is well past time to ask: why is Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, your university chancellor?
Hong Kong Watch has just released the report, “Academic Freedom in Hong Kong since 2015: Between Two Systems”. It examines growing threats to academic freedom in higher education in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since the mass protests of the Occupy movement. The status of academic freedom in the city, I found, is a microcosm of the status of the “one country, two systems” formula as a whole: it is still alive and generally well, thanks to constant public vigilance, but also lives on under constant threat.
Among the report’s many recommendations is to abolish the colonial practice wherein the city’s chief executive is named the chancellor of universities, thereby returning university governance to the university communities themselves.
In colonial times, the colony’s governor was named chancellor of universities. While the current practice of naming the chief executive as chancellor is thus based on a long-standing tradition, there are important distinctions in its implementation before and after the handover to China in 1997.
Before 1997, colonial governors’ role as university chancellors was largely ceremonial. For example, although the chancellor has the power to appoint figures to university councils, in the colonial era, councils would generally nominate their own members. The governor, as an appointee, would then take the step of officially appointing the chosen members.
After 1997, and in particular since the post-Occupy movement assault on academic freedom that began in 2015, the city’s chief executives have begun to take a far more proactive role in council appointments. Nowhere is this more evident than at the University of Hong Kong, where council member Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a close ally of former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, has in recent years presided over a blatantly politicised council.
Li is an outspoken figure who is publicly dismissive of the ongoing political debates in the city, and has repeatedly parroted Beijing’s narratives comparing students’ political activism to the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, sowing “chaos”. Li, however, has sown chaos of his own in the HKU council, as seen in the unprecedented decision in 2015 to override a search committee’s recommendation and refuse to consider Johannes Chan Man-mun for the position of pro-vice-chancellor, on political grounds. Soon thereafter, Leung promoted Li to chairman of HKU council in 2016, despite a poll of alumni showing 98 per cent opposition.
The promotion of political figures like Li and their influence on university governance can have a chilling effect on academic freedom. Broader political tightening in academia, as traced in the report, is also apparent in the recent decisions to discontinue the contracts of controversial scholars like Cheng Chung-tai of Polytechnic University. And nowhere is this tightening more apparent than in the recent top-down initiative to place arbitrary restrictions on freedom of inquiry and speech by labelling discussion and debates of Hong Kong independence as “illegal”. As our report shows, such initiatives have no legal basis.
In sum, many disconcerting measures to curtail academic freedom in Hong Kong have been taken in recent years under the false pretext of protecting the reputation of universities. And yet the growing restrictions on political speech and activities are in fact posing the greatest risk to these universities’ reputations. Some scholars and politicians have even argued that it is necessary to place limits on debates about sovereignty and independence to protect academic freedom.
Yet this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how academic freedom works: labelling one area as forbidden does not protect other freedoms, but rather creates a precedent for future restrictions. And the general trend in Hong Kong today, as anyone can see, is certainly not one of loosening restrictions.
To be clear, Hong Kong Watch absolutely is not an advocate for the independence for Hong Kong. The organisation was set up to protect the rights enshrined under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Basic Law, preserving “one country, two systems”. However, the best way to protect the reputation of universities in Hong Kong as world-class centres for research and teaching is to protect their freedom of research, inquiry and debate. These are not radical measures: all are guaranteed in the Basic Law.
And the best way to achieve these goals is to abolish the chief executive’s role as university chancellor, returning all matters of university governance to the university communities themselves.
Kevin Carrico is a lecturer in Chinese Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, specialising in nationalism and ethnic relations in China and Hong Kong. He is the author of the report, Academic Freedom in Hong Kong since 2015: Between Two Systems