Fear of erosion of academic freedom

Academics are bracing themselves for possible assaults on much-cherished academic freedom in the wake of reported moves by Hong Kong’s chief executive to block the appointment of a pro-democracy academic to a leadership position at Hong Kong University, a top rated university in Asia.

Vowing to stay vigilant, more than 1,000 academics, students and university staff have supported a signature campaign organised by a newly set up ‘Concern Group for Higher Education in Hong Kong’, calling for non-interference in institutional autonomy.

The academics’ swift move came in the wake of media reports last month alleging Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was seeking to block the appointment of former dean of Hong Kong University’s law faculty, Johannes Chan Man-mun, as the university’s pro vice-chancellor after a search committee was reportedly in favour of offering Chan the position.

This follows scathing attacks by two pro-Beijing newspapers on Chan’s academic record – a tactic that has been used to discredit prominent dissident mainland academics such as Xia Yeliang, a former economics professor at Peking University who was dismissed from his post in 2013.

Chan openly supported genuine elections for Hong Kong – the goal of the Occupy Central protest movement in Hong Kong late last year.

“We want to be proactive, vigilant and come forward whenever there is any attack on institutional autonomy,” says Dora Choi Po-king, a concern group member and an associate professor in the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of educational administration and policy. Some 400 academics have backed the campaign.

“We need to get support from society to protect academic freedom. That is a safety valve for protection of freedom of speech and the well-being of our society,” she told University World News.

HKU pro-democracy links

Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong’s universities enjoy a high degree of academic freedom, autonomy and freedom of expression. But the role of academics has come under scrutiny in Beijing since Hong Kong was rocked last year by street protests organised by student groups and Occupy Central.

One of the three founders of the Occupy Central movement was Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor in the law faculty at Hong Kong University, or HKU, who worked under Chan. The civic movement saw thousands of students camped out outside government headquarters to press for real democracy in the election of the territory’s next chief executive.

Hong Kong media reports alleged that this year Leung had attempted to interfere in the HKU process by calling up members of the university’s council, which is due to make a decision soon.

Leung’s office has flatly denied any interference in the selection process. Another denial was issued after a report in Ming Pao, a Chinese-language daily newspaper, quoted sources saying that Leung had blocked recommendations for honorary degrees made by a HKU committee.

Leung’s alleged interference came on the heels of attacks by two pro-Beijing newspapers on Chan’s academic leadership and capabilities. This was based on a leaked research assessment document commissioned by the government funding body, the University Grants Committee.

The two newspapers gave wide coverage to the document, leaked two days prior to their official release, which found that HKU’s law faculty had a lower percentage of research output that achieved top international rankings than its counterpart at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, another top rated university in Hong Kong.

The comparison, however, has been dismissed as unfounded since the percentage did not reflect the total number of submissions made by each institution. Nor, as some HKU law professors retorted, did the assessment reflect the law school's contribution to the wider community under Chan's leadership, especially its leadership role in Hong Kong law.

HKU law professors have condemned the pro-Beijing media attacks as a "worrying" signal of political interference in academic affairs.

Lack of trust

Choi acknowledges a lack of trust in Chief Executive Leung, which simply stems from the fact that he was handpicked by Beijing. “He is appointed by an autocratic government with no checks and balances. That’s what we are afraid of.”

Another indication of the lack of trust is the suspicion, though unproven, voiced in Hong Kong’s media and among academics that the research assessment document leak came from a University Grants Committee member handpicked by Leung himself.

“There is circumstantial evidence suggesting that Chan was not favoured as a front runner for the HKU post because he supported the Occupy protests,” Choi said. “His [Leung’s] office said he did not try to interfere with the selection process. But couldn’t he just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether he had made the calls? Is he playing with the definition of `interference’?”

In another indication of concerns regarding freedom of speech on campuses, HKU alumni criticised Leung who this January attacked the university’s student union magazine Undergrad, which in February 2014 published an article suggesting independence from mainland China as an option for Hong Kong.

The graduates said it was inappropriate for Leung to single out a little-known student publication barely read outside the university on an occasion when he was due to deliver his policy plans.

Suppressing freedoms

Joshua Mok Ka-ho, vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, or HKIEd, who formerly worked at HKU and the City University of Hong Kong, is confident the academic community will defend the core value of academic freedom, which underlies the success of universities in Hong Kong.

“We have a well-established system here; academics here are all independent and will resist once they are aware of any undue moves,” he says.

But interference can appear in various forms, such as withdrawal of research funding. Leung Yan-wing, co-director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at HKIEd, warns: “There is no evidence yet on direct intervention from the government (regarding Chan’s case), but the future seems worrying.”

The government might want to suppress the freedom of intellectuals who challenged its policy goals, he said.

“Academics could be forced to do off-ground research, confined to the ivory tower doing research unrelated to local issues if no funding is made available to them. The local research done by HKU law faculty was given little weight, for example, in the latest research assessment exercise,” he said.