Hong Kong Students Warn of Erosion in Academic Freedom

By Associated Press 30 July 2015

HONG KONG — Students at Hong Kong’s most prestigious university say its academic freedom is under attack in what they maintain is the politically motivated stalling of the appointment of an administrator who supported last year’s pro-democracy protests.

In their most confrontational demonstration on campus, about 100 students of the University of Hong Kong stormed a conference room where school leaders were deliberating late Tuesday on the status of former law school dean Johannes Chan, whose appointment to pro-vice chancellor has been stalled for months.

University President Peter Mathieson put forth Chan’s name for the post last December, but the university’s governing body, which includes several loyalists to China’s central government, has so far blocked his appointment. In recent months the law school’s research record under Chan also came under attack from a Communist Party-controlled newspaper.

Chan, who has since been replaced as law school dean, was sympathetic to students and other activists who launched last year’s “Occupy Central” protests to demand open nominations in elections for Hong Kong’s top executive, which China’s central leadership rejected.

When HKU’s governing body voted late Tuesday to again delay Chan’s appointment, students stormed the room. “Despicable! Despicable!” the student protesters shouted as they formed a human barricade and demanded accountability. More than 100 alumni gathered on campus until nearly midnight to show support. Some held signs that read: “Preserve academic freedom. Defend institutional autonomy.”

Billy Fung, HKU Student Union president who led the protest, said Wednesday that his group would block any decision that goes against the wishes of students and alumni.

The century-old university counts many of the territory’s political and intellectual leaders among its graduates, and was the alma mater of revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, who began to formulate plans to overthrow China’s last dynasty here.

Since returning to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, this semi-autonomous region has been governed by the Basic Law, a mini-constitution that guarantees that educational institutions “retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom.”

“In Hong Kong, academics in a number of fields have always played an important role in social reforms. There’s frequently a link between research and social reforms,” said Carole J. Petersen, a law professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who taught at HKU for nearly two decades until 2006.

Meanwhile, on the mainland over the past year, China’s education minister has issued directives on strict ruling Communist Party control over higher education to guard against the infiltration of what are deemed to be Western values such as the fostering of democracy.