Logo redesign row sparks concerns over university autonomy

A row over a logo redesign by one of Hong Kong’s top universities has stirred concerns over university autonomy in the city after pro-Beijing lawmakers said they had not been consulted over the change and the old logo was reinstated.

The new design of Chinese University of Hong Kong’s (CUHK) crest, unveiled just a week ago, was ditched on Tuesday 25 October after a meeting of the university’s governing council.

The new crest has been removed from the university’s website and social media pages after Hong Kong legislators, who also sit on the university’s governing council, said they were “shocked” at the update which they claimed had, without consultation, removed elements “fundamental to Chinese culture”.

The university unveiled a ‘brand refresh’ on 17 October which included a new emblem with a mythical Chinese phoenix on a purple shield, intended to mark the university’s 60th anniversary.

‘Everything is political now’

Other pro-Beijing legislators, who are not on the university’s council, also weighed in on the changes in a manner that showed, one CUHK academic said on condition of anonymity, “how everything is political now” in Hong Kong’s universities.

“They [universities] are being watched closely by the pro-Beijing faction, so that even small changes like the university emblem cannot be permitted without their say-so.”

The old version, now restored, divided the shield into two with the colours reversed on the right-hand side.

On Monday the university wrote in a statement that the new emblem would have a pure purple background instead of split colours in order to provide “a clearer, more distinctive and dynamic look [for] the mythical Chinese phoenix”.

It would also introduce a simplified logo for digital use, removing the motto, “through learning and temperance to virtue”, that appeared underneath the shield.

The 59-member university council includes top management, academics and ‘laymen’, with three seats allocated to legislators. The three legislators on the council have demanded an “independent investigation” into the redesign process.

Bill Tang, a CUHK council member and a legislator representing trade unions, accused the university management of acting ‘recklessly’. He said he had not seen the new version until the day before it was announced.

Accusations of a ‘governance problem’

Several critics, lawmakers among them, suggested the logo issue amounted to a “governance problem” at the university and said the university’s decisions lacked transparency.

Tang welcomed the decision to revert back to the old emblem but added: “This whole process has caused a very bad situation that has once again revealed flaws in the structure of university management, which is a more far-reaching issue.”

“The whole saga shows the university management’s poor governance,” said lawmaker Tommy Cheung who sits on the CUHK council.

Legislator Priscilla Leung, who represents the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong, and is chairwoman of the Hong Kong legislature’s panel on education, on Tuesday criticised the university, saying it failed to consult the public about a decision to change its emblem. “It’s not a very minor matter for the university. From my own point of view, it’s even more important than changes of personnel at the university.” Leung is a CUHK alumna.

The university said it spent nearly a year seeking the advice of 2,200 stakeholders, including staff, students, alumni and council members along with local, mainland and international partners plus the general public. But Leung said there was a “lack of consultation [of] the stakeholders of the university, which should include alumni of different generations”.

Call for greater accountability

Leung added that the incident highlighted the need to amend the CUHK Ordinance in order to ensure the publicly funded university was more accountable. On 26 October she backed some members of the CUHK governing council who were calling for an “independent investigation” into the logo affair, a day after the council officially abandoned the new emblem.

A CUHK alumnus said: “Some pro-Beijingers’ open attacks on the university management are concerning. What should have been a straightforward consultation has instead become a public and humiliating climb-down by the university’s administration.

“The message to CUHK’s leadership is that they cannot act on their own,” he added. “And it has given outsiders an excuse to interfere with internal governance.”

Others pointed out that the university’s management has come under constant scrutiny by pro-Beijing factions since the institution was the scene of a major siege and violent protests in 2019. CUHK Vice-Chancellor Rocky Tuan came under attack by pro-Beijing factions for criticising the police over their action at the campus.