Hong Kong’s leading university faces a major test over academic freedom following the jailing of an academic who played a key role in the Occupy protests.
Benny Tai, an associate professor in the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law, was among nine political activists convicted last month for their roles in organising the pro-democracy demonstration, which lasted 79 days in late 2014.
Professor Tai was sentenced to 16 months in prison alongside Chan Kin-man, a retired associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, on charges that they conspired to commit public nuisance.
While student leaders have previously been sentenced to prison for their involvement in the protest, it marks the first time that academics have been convicted for their part in the “Umbrella Movement” – so-called because of participants’ use of umbrellas to shield themselves from police pepper spray.
Human rights activists believe the new sentences were imposed as a result of pressure from Chinese authorities.
According to the South China Morning Post, 29 alumni have urged HKU to immediately launch a disciplinary inquiry against Professor Tai for advocating civil disobedience “in the disguise of an academic”. In response, a group of 30 other alumni countered with a petition calling on the university to defer any inquiry until court proceedings are exhausted, as Professor Tai has indicated that he will appeal.
Michael O’Sullivan, associate professor in the department of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that if HKU were to terminate Professor Tai’s contract, which it is now reviewing, “it will be seen as evidence that academic freedom is severely restricted at HKU, especially after the Johannes Chan case”.
In 2015, the council of HKU voted to reject the appointment of Johannes Chan to the post of pro vice-chancellor. Critics claimed that this was because of Professor Chan’s close ties with Professor Tai.
“Despite the fact that HKU is careful to stress that its review of Tai’s contract is normal procedure for any employee convicted of a criminal offence, the termination of Tai’s contract would, one feels, finally send out a strong message that HKU is at root now a distinctively different educational institution from any of those UK institutions it was once modelled on, both in terms of structure and academic freedom,” Professor O’Sullivan said.
Tao Zhang, a senior lecturer in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Arts and Humanities, said that “Hong Kong has enjoyed a degree of academic freedom unseen in mainland China and has been a place of refuge for some Chinese dissidents and academics”.
However, “this is now under threat”, he said, and the academic convictions will be regarded as a “test” of “how far the administration of HKU can stand up to pressure from Beijing”.
HKU said that in light of the court ruling, it would “follow up in accordance with the procedures stipulated in the University of Hong Kong Ordinance and related rules and regulations”.