University ‘purge’ continues apace as another leader departs

With another Hong Kong university head announcing his departure – the third in recent months – human rights organisations say a ‘purge’ at Hong Kong’s universities is continuing apace. A pro-democracy academic has come under fire in the pro-Beijing media and has left, and a further student union has been derecognised.

The departure of Stephen Cheung Yan-leung, president of the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK), one of the smaller publicly funded universities in the city with around 8,000 students, was announced earlier this month.

The official statement that Cheung would not seek a third five-year term after his planned departure in 2023 came after a leading academic at the same institution, who had been a pro-democracy activist, left abruptly after being specifically targeted by pro-Beijing newspapers and supporters in the city.

Brian Fong, an EdUHK associate professor who has been described by local media as a “rising star of local academia”, left the institution on an undisclosed date recently after coming under attack by pro-Beijing media.

In 2020, as secretary general of the Progressive Scholars Group comprising more than a dozen pro-democracy academics, he was instrumental in bringing out a hard-hitting report on Hong Kong academic freedom. The group has now disbanded.

Higher than usual exodus

Fong, who was deputy director of the Academy of Hong Kong Studies at EdUHK and who has not himself made public his departure, is among a higher than normal exodus of academics from Hong Kong universities, including university leaders.

City University of Hong Kong (CityU) in November said its president, Way Kuo, would not renew his contract when it expired next year. Days earlier, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) announced that President Wei Shyy would step down before his term ended.

Like other departing university heads, EdUHK’s Cheung has given no public indication as to why he decided not to seek re-appointment.

“Obviously, there is a purge in Hong Kong universities in general, essentially changing the leadership, getting rid of pro-democracy academics, and getting rid of student union activities and so on,” said Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch.

As the main teacher training and curriculum research institute in Hong Kong, EduHK has a particular role in the overhaul of schools, where textbooks are being brought in that are in line with new rules and a pro-Beijing agenda.

Beijing sees the city’s education system as being behind attitudes that brought millions of people, including school children, onto the streets in 2019. Hong Kong teachers are being pressured to show open loyalty to Beijing.

Wang told University World News: “Education University has a particular relationship with the authorities. And it depends on how able they are to withstand authority pressure.”

EdUHK has said it will carry out a global search for Cheung’s successor. According to the latest global rankings by subject from Quacquarelli Symonds or QS, published last year, EdUHK is third in Asia and 16th worldwide in the field of education.

Student union derecognition

The announcement has attracted attention, coming the same month Fong’s departure came to light and the same week that EdUHK ceased to recognise its student union, citing long-existing ‘governance problems’ at the union.

The student union at EdUHK noted a lack of willingness by the university administration to meet with union members to resolve the situation, using the pretext of the pandemic.

The union was stripped of the right to manage campus facilities and its reserves of HK$9 million (US$1.15 million) were taken over by the university’s finance office this month, a move student representatives criticised as “hasty and irresponsible”.

Other Hong Kong universities have similarly severed ties with their student unions in recent months, often over politically tinged disputes, most notably the student unions at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and at the University of Hong Kong.

At CityU, the student union was also handed an eviction notice from its premises on campus this month after the university’s student development services issued a letter to the union ordering it to vacate and return the premises by 14 February.

This was after the union failed to comply with a request to submit 16 years of audited financial records within two weeks, described as unreasonable and impossible to deliver within the time frame.

CityU union members said this week that they were looking into “borrowing” premises on campus or securing premises off campus.

“Right now, it seems it is mostly individuals, particularly influential individuals, who are being targeted as a routine tactic. On the other hand, it would seem that abolishing student unions is not just about getting rid of student union leaders, but essentially to completely get rid of student activism as a way of life in Hong Kong and as a characterisation of Hong Kong universities,” said Wang.

Six of Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities ceased collecting membership fees for student unions from last September, severing the official link between university administrations and student unions.

Role of pro-Beijing media in attacking academics

Academics in Hong Kong have noted the role of pro-Beijing media, in particular the newspapers Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po – which are controlled by Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong – for launching attacks which lead to the departures of particular individuals including academics.

A Hong Kong University academic who declined to be named said: “Ta Kung Pao is famous for attacking academics, including one of my colleagues in the education faculty.”

“Their journalists are told to attack academics who are ‘too out of line’ with the power centre,” he said. “They would be called names like ‘traitors’, which hits hard when you love your country and are made to feel like you are being excommunicated.

“In short, the feel-good atmosphere for democratic activism is gone, and for those academics who make that a central part of their civic lives, I can understand their resignations.”

Carsten Holz, a professor in the social science division at HKUST, said: “It would be of great interest for Hong Kong academics to know the chronology of events that led to Brian Fong’s departure. Was he told to resign, or did he choose to resign?

“Given the complete absence of information about what academics in Hong Kong are not allowed to research and say, it would be highly informative to know what offence Brian may have committed. Unless, of course, the whole purpose of the lack of information is to intimidate academics into total silence on anything other than Xi Jinping Thought.”

Holz wrote in a recent commentary for University World News: “When Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po zero in on a target, Hong Kong government ministers jump into action. When the target is an academic, the academic knows their time in Hong Kong is limited.”

Ta Kung Pao has stepped up its arsenal by targeting research funding of academics it disapproves of. It has generally sought to cast doubt on the meritocratic award of academic research grants – Fong was the recipient of a large amount of research grant funding from Hong Kong’s University Grants Commission, the universities’ funding body.

In its 7 February edition, Ta Kung Pao accused Fong of being a “pro-independence element” for joining opposition politicians in 2016 to advocate “a general strike” in pursuit of greater democracy in Hong Kong. It also claimed he encouraged university students during a forum in 2017 to build up their “Hong Kong identity”.

The pro-Beijing newspaper described the University Grants Commission as a “cash machine for anti-China scholars who have disrupted Hong Kong”, accusing the commission of using public funds to “subsidise ‘Hong Kong independence elements’”.

According to Ta Kung Pao: “Many people in the education sector believe that the University Grants Commission should review the existing guidelines for fund applications, and include whether it violates the national security law and other legal provisions into the evaluation criteria.”

Human Rights Watch’s Wang concluded: “The Chinese Communist Party is trying to completely transform Hong Kong from a free society into one that is under full control of the Chinese Communist Party. And that transformation has to depend on destroying all the pillars that support independence of thought, expression and action.

“And, as part of that destruction, academia is an important pillar that the party must destroy to rebuild it in a way that the party wants. In that way, the party is purging the universities of administrators and leaders and academics who do not conform to the party’s ideas, and do not express unreserved loyalty to the party.

“I expect that purge to continue and deepen over time,” continued Wang. “It is not just getting rid of the people but also changing the systems of academia in Hong Kong, and changing the systems of Hong Kong in many different ways.”