University of Hong Kong fires Occupy Central founder Benny Tai

Law lecturer says decision marks ‘end of academic freedom’ in city, but institution insists it is acting in light of court judgment

July 28, 2020
Source: iStock
Benny Tai in 2014

After many months of debate, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) council has voted to fire Benny Tai, an associate professor of law and pro-democracy figure.

The council’s decision overrides a decision by the university’s senate earlier this month, which concluded that there were no grounds for Mr Tai’s dismissal. The council, the university’s governing body whose members are mostly not teaching staff or students, is responsible for management, finances and human resources. The senate, comprised mostly of professors and teachers, is responsible for academic matters and student welfare.

Mr Tai wrote on his Facebook page that the decision was made by “an authority beyond the university through its agents” and that it “marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong”.

He thanked HKU for “nurturing me as a law student, a law teacher, a legal researcher and a guardian of the rule of law. I am heartbroken to witness the demise of our beloved university.”

However, Mr Tai said that he would continue his research and teaching in another capacity, and expressed confidence that there would be a “rebirth of a free HKU in the future”.

Nathaniel Lei, a HKU council student representative, said after the meeting that the decision was a blow to academic freedom, but that the council still had a “chance to review” and revisit its decision. “The senate is the highest authority for academics and teaching and learning. But now, since our senate made its decision, the council and our university have some different points [of view],” he said. “It’s a very huge challenge and it does not respect our university’s autonomy.”

Mr Tai has been a thorn in the authorities’ side for years, especially since leading the Occupy Central democracy movement in 2014.

In 2019, he was found guilty of two counts of conspiracy to cause public nuisance in relation to his 2014 activism. He was sentenced to 16 months’ imprisonment and served several months in jail before being released on bail. An appeal to overturn his conviction is pending.

Most recently, Mr Tai provoked the ire of the authorities by helping to organise a July primary for the pro-democracy camp before legislative elections in September. The turnout of more than 600,000 voters was seen as a sign of support for the opposition.

Without mentioning Mr Tai by name, the university issued a statement saying that it had “resolved a personnel issue concerning a teaching staff member”. It said that it acted “in light of the judgment of the courts” and decided on termination for “good cause”. It called the dismissal “an internal personnel matter” and asked the public to respect “the autonomy of the institution”. Citing privacy concerns, it said that it could not further comment on individual cases.

The HKU Student Union wrote an open letter to the council the day before the decision, saying that “Tai is known for more than his intellectual rigour and thoughtful eloquence befitting his legal expertise and professorial career. He has impressed on generations of students the responsibility of a public intellectual, with his genuine care of society and unwavering pursuit of universal suffrage.”

In a separate case, Shiu Ka-chun, an opposition lawmaker who was also involved in the 2014 Occupy Central movement, said on 27 July that Hong Kong Baptist University would not renew his employment contract. Mr Shiu had already been relieved of teaching duties in the department of social work in January.

The removal of two pro-democracy academic staff in two days comes after a national security law was enacted in Hong Kong on 30 June. The new legislation has caused concern about academic freedom among both local academics and overseas scholars 

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