Governance tussle signals concerns over university freedoms

An ongoing debate about the number of external members allowed to sit on the governing council of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), an arcane issue normally of interest only to the campus community, has become a major barometer of the Hong Kong administration’s involvement in internal university affairs.

A private members’ bill initiated by three lawmakers who also sit on the CUHK council – Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, Bill Tang Ka-piu and Edward Lau Kwok-fan – is currently being discussed in the Hong Kong legislature, sometimes in closed sessions without public or media presence.

Critics have said the way the university’s affairs are being brought before the city’s legislature is damaging university autonomy, academic freedom and the morale of academics.

“It is a misuse of the legislature and a misuse of legislators’ own position to ram through university matters that they [lawmakers on the university council] could not get by consultation and consensus within the university council, which is the highest body for the university’s affairs,” a CUHK alumna told University World News on condition of anonymity.

The bill seeks to downsize the university’s council from 54 members to 33, with the three current council seats allocated to alumni reduced to one and the ratio of external appointees increased to double the current number of internal members made up of CUHK administration, staff and students.


The private bill is being robustly opposed by alumni members of the university’s council who last week launched a petition, even taking out front-page ads in three Hong Kong newspapers, saying the signatories “deeply regretted” the private bill was “not scrutinised or approved by the CUHK council before it was gazetted”.

They accused lawmakers of trying to rush through the unendorsed changes.

The petition, organised by alumni Kelvin Yeung, Enders Lam and Heung Shu-fai, criticised the lawmakers for “ignoring” the opinions of university employees, students and alumni set out in a proposal endorsed in April by a task force set up by the university to review the council’s composition.

Yeung said the “authority to restructure the university council lies with the university”.

The taskforce report, released on 17 April after consultations with CUHK academics and staff, did not go as far as the lawmakers’ proposed bill, but suggested cutting the number of lawmakers on the council to two rather than three.

The report also recommended reducing the members of the governing council from 54 to between 25 and 34 to “ensure its efficiency and effectiveness” and recommended a ratio of internal members to external ones of between 1:2 and 1:1.6.

The CUHK council in a meeting on 1 August reaffirmed its support for the taskforce proposal.

The petition, started on 22 July, had garnered over 1,600 signatures by 1 August.

Lam, one of the petition organisers, said in a local radio interview that the bill would “damage the university’s autonomy and academic freedom” and that his fellow CUHK alumni agreed that any proposals should be made internally by the university and not the legislature.

Test of democratic processes

The ongoing battle is being seen by some as a test of existing avenues for democratic processes in the city’s once open system, which has been much reduced by Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong in July 2020. That was followed by the mass resignation of 15 pro-democracy members of the Legislative Council in November of the same year.

“The reason why this issue is making headlines in Hong Kong, while normally the public would not be so interested in this internal university issue, is that it is about a pro-China [Hong Kong] legislature’s ability to impose a particular view, seemingly on behalf of the Hong Kong public. If Legco [Legislative Council] can seize this issue and make it a matter that can be legislated on, then other areas of public life can also be affected,” said one CUHK academic speaking on condition of anonymity.

Gerard Postiglione, emeritus professor at the University of Hong Kong, told University World News: “The private member's bill seems more about fear than the future, more about control than courage, and more about images than imagination.”

Referring to the role of Hong Kong universities in boosting innovation and technology in the Southern China region, Postiglione added: “It is not out of the question that such a bill may weaken the morale of the academic research enterprises that did the heavy lifting to strengthen high-tech science and economic innovation for the wider region.”

In an interview on the government-controlled broadcaster RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) on Monday 31 July, Postiglione obliquely criticised the Hong Kong’s government’s propensity to get involved in university matters.

Tik Chi-yuen a centrist member of legislative council, regarded as the only non-pro-China member of the 90-seat legislature, said in a letter this week to the Hong Kong’s English-language South China Morning Post newspaper: “A proposed amendment to the Chinese University ordinance, which is a matter of societal importance, has been causing conflict because it departs from standard procedure.

“The amendment was submitted as a private members’ bill by three Legislative Council members who sit on the Chinese University council, without authorisation from the council itself. This unexpected move has raised concerns about the transparency and accountability of the amendment process.

“The call to halt the private members’ bill is not due to specific clauses, but because it breaches the crucial norm of consensus.”

Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, who was previously a researcher at City University of Hong Kong (CityU), told University World News that while he had not followed the CUHK council case in detail, “we need to observe what is going on because this is about internal [university governance] and also [about] lawmakers.

“The problem with the [Hong Kong] lawmakers is that all of them are pro-China, whether it is radically pro-China or modestly pro-China. It looks like the people who are engaged in this issue are actually very radical.”

Wu noted that many Hong Kong academics were extremely concerned, but he added their concerns went beyond university affairs to wider government interference.

Prominent figures sign petition – then withdraw

While the CUHK alumna who spoke on condition of anonymity said there is opposition to the way the legislature is being used, “voiced by some very prominent academics and others who would not normally speak out”, some prominent figures, who initially signed the petition launched by the alumni council members, have since “withdrawn” their signatures.

These include Lingnan University president Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon, CUHK vice-president Eric Ng Shu-pui and the deputy head of the Hong Kong Chief Executive’s Policy Unit Nicholas Kwan, who is a CUHK alumnus.

Lingnan University’s Cheng, in his “withdrawal” statement to the chair of the Legco committee scrutinising the bill, said he “did not have a sufficient grasp on the facts and evidence” of the matter. He urged Legco to preside over the proposal in a “civilised” manner, including listening to the opposition’s concerns and deciding technicalities “flexibly”.

The Hong Kong administration, led by former policeman John Lee, who also acts as chancellor of the publicly funded universities in the city, has so far not taken a stand on the bill although Cheung, one of the bill’s proposers, had claimed Lee supported the bill.

However, Hong Kong’s former chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who no longer holds a position in the Hong Kong administration but serves as an advisor to Beijing as a vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference under the Communist Party, openly supports the bill.

In recent social media posts, the latest this week, Leung singled out in particular the CUHK vice-chancellor Rocky Tuan for criticism in respect of his role during student clashes with police on the university campus in 2019 and has said that this led to “the need to reform the Chinese University council and remove Rocky Tuan”.

Tuan, though invited to the legislative hearings, was not present at the committee meetings held in the past two weeks.

Other lawmakers have called for greater scrutiny of the council.