Students and staff in Hong Kong marched in silent protest in defense of academic freedom after the University council bypassed a search committee’s recommendation for appointing Johannes Chan as university pro-vice chancellor. The council’s decision to overrule the committee’s recommendation is believed to be a Beijing-backed assault on academic freedom.
Dressed in black and wearing academic gowns, the group, which numbered more than 2,000, marched in silence toward Sun Yat-sen Place led by scholars Joseph Chan, Petula Ho and Timothy O’Leary. For many of Chan’s supporters, the decision is related to his ties to Benny Tai, a law professor who supported a former British colony pro-democracy movement.
According to ejinsight, the committee endorsed Chan for one of the five pro-vice chancellor position in what was a ‘long-delayed nomination process’. However, the University council decided to block the appointment and selected another candidate.
Timothy O’Leary, Humanities head at HKU, commented about the decision to sabotage Chan’s appointment as:
“[A]n absolute disgrace. All we can conclude is that they have blocked it for political reasons and that is completely unacceptable,” O’Leary said.
He said that political leaders in Hong Kong and China were avenging Hong Kong University for the involvement of student and academic faculty in pro-democracy protests in 2014:
“They want to send a clear message to the University of Hong Kong that we should shut up and not cause trouble.” Addressing fellow scholars and students he added: “This will not be tolerated.”
The council voted 12 to 8 to block the search committee’s endorsement for Chan’s appointment. According to council chairman Leong Che-hung, the decision made by the committee is to the “best and long-term interests” of the university.
Chan self-identified himself as a ‘rather moderate, liberal person’ who’s puzzled by the council’s opposition to his appointment, as he told the New York Times.
Presently, the HKU is overtly politicized with a climate of fear permeating the campus. In fact, many academics are concerned over their inability to speak freely without affecting their careers:
“There are people who are worried about how far they can still comment on public affairs, particularly those who work in humanities,” he told the NYT. “I have junior colleagues coming to me saying: ‘I don’t know really know whether I can still write about this or not.’”
It is the first time in the university’s 104 years that a demonstration of this extent has taken place. O’Leary says Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong exerted pressure on the council to prevent Chan’s appointment.
A year ago, pro-democracy demonstrations began in Hong Kong during which students launched a 79-day occupation of the city’s financial center while over 100,000 people rallied in favor of universal suffrage for Hong Kong.