Hong Kong leader gives up Cambridge honorary fellowship

Carrie Lam calls criticism ‘groundless’ and insists the city’s universities have academic freedom

August 17, 2020
Source: iStock
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in 2019

Hong Kong’s embattled leader has rescinded her honorary fellowship from Wolfson College, Cambridge and hit back against criticism of her handling of academic freedom.

Various groups had been petitioning Wolfson College to remove Carrie Lam’s title since late 2019, amid government crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrations that included campus clashes and student arrests. 

Wolfson College had been reconsidering Ms Lam’s title since at least early July, after the passing of a security law that has sparked fears about academic freedom from both overseas and local scholars

At that time, the college issued a statement saying that it was “deeply concerned about recent events in Hong Kong following the enactment of the National Security Law. The governing body will be considering Mrs Lam’s position as an honorary fellow of the college.”  

Ms Lam announced on her official Facebook page over the weekend that she was relinquishing the fellowship, after receiving correspondence from the college. She called accusations that her administration had unfairly punished teachers and students “groundless” and said Wolfson College “did not provide any corroborating evidence” of its claims.  

She said it had become “very difficult to convince myself to continue to have links with Wolfson College”, adding that Hong Kong universities had academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Wolfson College confirmed her resignation and said it would not go ahead with discussions, set for next month, about her title. It said it had “raised concerns” about Ms Lam’s “commitment to the protection of human rights and the freedom of expression”.

Ms Lam was given the honorary fellowship in 2017 after she became the first woman to be appointed Hong Kong’s leader. She attended Cambridge in the early 1980s, when the then-British Hong Kong government supported her in attending a diploma course.

The awarding of UK titles to Hong Kong figures has come under increasing scrutiny. Last October, Anglia Ruskin University stripped an honorary degree from Junius Ho, a pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker who had been accused of having links to clashes in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is caught in the middle of a debate about academic freedom, which is seen from vastly different points of view in China and the West. There has been public pushback against police and government actions against student protesters and critical teaching staff.

Thousands have signed English- and Chinese-language petitions asking the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) to revoke the dismissals of politically critical teaching staff.

Benny Tai, a democracy leader and law professor who was fired from HKU, has said that he is going to appeal the decision.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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