Hong Kong academics and alumni stand up for student protesters

Criticism grows as the government is accused of causing ‘unforgiveable havoc’ amid protests  

October 21, 2019
Source: Jo Wing Ying for iStock
Hong Kong police deployed tear gas at a protest this summer

The Hong Kong government faces two new challenges from the higher education sector tied to the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in the city.

The Convocation of the University of Hong Kong, a statutory body which comprises graduates and teachers, held an extraordinary general meeting on 19 October to vote on two non-binding motions pertaining to the protests. Both passed with overwhelming majorities: by 2,986 to 230, and by 3,002 to 218.  

The first motion held Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive and an HKU alumna, “responsible for having caused unforgivable havoc to Hong Kong” and urged her to resign as HKU chancellor. Following tradition, the head of government is the de facto chancellor of the city's universities.  

Hong Kong’s eight main higher education institutions are publicly supported, and they may feel caught in a balancing act of keeping good relations with the government that funds them. 

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, told Times Higher Education that “the fact that universities are funded by taxpayers does not mean universities are meant to be subservient to the government of the day”.

“If there is a sense among leaders in Hong Kong’s universities that they are ‘caught in the middle’ and having the chief executive of the SAR as chancellor is posing a problem to upholding academic integrity and independence, then they should move to end the legacy from the British colonial days in having the governor serving as chancellor of the universities,” he said, using the abbreviation for Hong Kong’s designation as a special administrative region (SAR) of China. 

“There is no compelling reason why this practice must be continued,” Professor Tsang added. 

The second motion from the HKU Convocation “strongly” urged the administration to assist students injured during protests and to “ensure about their legal rights being adequately protected at trials”. 

A day prior, Rocky Tuan, vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, called for an investigation into student arrests and related police violence. He said that he would condemn any “proven” cases of police brutality. 

His statement was striking for its emotional openness and the candour with which it described how university administrators are dealing with difficult situations.  

“My heart is heavy and unsettled as I pen this personal letter. The chaotic scenes from the media images of my meeting a week ago with CUHK students and alumni must have shocked many,” he wrote, referring to a forum in which students testified about alleged police mistreatment. “I heard loud and clear every word uttered by our students, which brought me no small share of sadness and regret.” 

“The university is expected to make best use of its status, standing, and influence to ensure a fair treatment of the related issues and the students affected,” he concluded.  

Professor Tuan’s comments met with almost immediate backlash. People’s Daily, a Chinese state media newspaper, called Professor Tuan’s letter “biased.” Leung Chun-ying, former Hong Kong chief executive and now vice-chairman of a top Chinese advisory body, accused Professor Tuan of issuing the statement for his own personal preservation and said that student protesters did not require assistance from universities.  

In a rare show of solidarity, the heads of the eight university councils issued a joint statement on 20 October clarifying that assistance provided by universities did not necessarily reflect political views. “Universities cherish the well-being of all staff and students,” it said. 

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com  

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