Battle for Hong Kong University's soul
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - This centenary year for the University of Hong Kong (HKU) - judged
the best university in Asia and the 22nd best in the world by QS World
University Rankings - should be a time of celebration and pride for all those
connected with its distinguished history.
Instead, however, it is being marked with sadness and alarm amid a growing
controversy surrounding the recent announcement that Vice Chancellor Tsui
Lap-chee - whose leadership over the past nine years has been instrumental in
enhancing HKU's reputation on the global stage - will quit at the end of his
contract in August next year.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen holds the
honorary position of chancellor of the university, leaving the vice chancellor
in charge of daily affairs. By most accounts, Tsui has been superb in his post
- until it came time for the centenary celebration last August.
Rather than feting the university's long history of scholarship and academic
freedom, the ceremony seemed designed to glorify Hong Kong's tycoon class and
to impress and protect a visiting Chinese dignitary, Vice Premier Li Keqiang,
who is expected to take Wen Jiabao's place as premier in next year's leadership
Even the timing of the celebration was suspect. HKU was founded in March of
1910, and yet the ceremony took place in August of 2011 during Li's three-day
visit to the city. Coincidence? Probably not. And did Tsui invite Li or did Li
Whatever the case, the smothering, over-the-top security arrangements carried
out in the name of protecting the vice premier while he was on the HKU campus
on August 18 turned into a major embarrassment for the university and for Hong
Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China whose mini-constitution
guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
So restricted was media coverage of Li's visit to the city - including the
speech he delivered at HKU - that, less than 48 hours after his departure, 300
members of the Hong Kong Journalists Association hit back with a
"dress-in-black" protest outside police headquarters in Central district.
No government official would even acknowledge the presence of a squad of
black-suited security agents who were seen during Li's visit to the Laguna City
area of Hong Kong dragging away a man wearing a T-shirt that referred to the
June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.
Hong Kong's tough-talking new police chief, Andy Tsang Wai-hung, defended the
unprecedented security measures, which included the deployment of 2,000 to
3,000 police officers (in addition to the unacknowledged, black-suited mystery
men) who trailed Li around the city on each of the three days he was here.
Tsang even claimed that police were justified in blocking a NOW TV crew from
filming the scuffle in Laguna City.
He also refused to apologize for the wholesale lockdown of HKU while Li was on
campus in what is now infamously known as the 818 Incident. During what can
only be described as a Hong Kong Police Department occupation of the HKU
campus, officers threw three student protesters to ground and subsequently
locked one of them in a stairwell for about an hour.
Other students and alumni, some of whom were wearing "Vindicate June 4"
T-shirts, were aggressively hemmed in by police far away from Loke Yew Hall,
where Li was giving his speech.
Meanwhile, as Li spoke in the hall, only a relative few HKU students and alumni
were there to hear and see him. Instead, the invited guests included the
richest and most powerful men in Hong Kong, among them Li Ka-shing, chairman of
Cheung Kong Holdings and the wealthiest person of Chinese descent on the
planet; Lee Shau-kee, managing director of Henderson Land Development; and the
now 89-year-old, wheelchair-bound casino magnate, Stanley Ho Hung-sun.
Indeed, the gathering of plutocrats occupying front-row seats in the hall could
have passed for a meeting of a Hong Kong club for billionaires. The
choreography on stage was also unsettling. Li, one of two guests of honor, was
seated where the chancellor of the university generally sits while the other
honored guest - Lord David Wilson, a former colonial governor of Hong Kong and
former chancellor of the university - found himself sitting on the end seat of
the second row.
During a celebration marking its 100th year - a year that could now go down in
memory as one of its darkest - a respected academic institution now appeared to
be in thrall to the central government and in the pockets of the city's tycoon
The scorn and blame for all this, of course, fell squarely on the shoulders of
the 60-year-old Tsui, a Shanghai native who was a prominent geneticist before
becoming HKU's 14th vice chancellor in 2002. Tsui replaced Cheng Yiu-chung, who
was also caught up in a political scandal. Cheng resigned after a university
inquiry found him guilty of trying to prevent long-time HKU pollster Robert
Chung Ting-yiu from conducting polls that showed the plummeting popularity and
credibility of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.
Tsui was booed when he appeared at an 818 campus protest involving 1,000
teachers, students and ordinary citizens in late August, and his and the
university's reputation was further damaged when 270 HKU alumni purchased a
full-page newspaper advertisement condemning the university's security
arrangements with the police.
In the immediate aftermath of the Li fiasco, Tsui did himself no favors with
comments he made defending the police department for having "protected
students," adding: "The University of Hong Kong is no longer a Hong Kong
university. The University of Hong Kong is an international University on
Chinese soil and has a very important role to play in China."
Tsui also pleaded with angry students and faculty to understand that HKU was
not accustomed to hosting state leaders and coordinating security with the
police, but critics were quick to point out a trouble-free campus visit by Wen
in June 2003, although students were not allowed to ask the premier any
questions following his 15-minute speech.
Since his initial remarks, however, Tsui's attitude toward the incident and
ensuing protests has undergone a dramatic change. Now he calls the police
lockdown "unacceptable" and "regrettable," and he has apologized several times
for his role in the affair while also stressing that HKU remains a place where
freedom of expression is cherished.
"I don't think the university has lost its culture of being free, open and
diverse," he said.
But the controversy has refused to die. Tsui's insistence that his decision to
step down as vice chancellor - made last week at a meeting of the University
Council, HKU's governing body - is not related to the ongoing debate over Li's
visit has met with great skepticism at the university and beyond. He offered no
explanation for his imminent departure other than to say:
"I'm a geneticist. I know succession and evolution are very important to an
organization such as our university."
Dissatisfied with that statement, lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong announced plans to
call Tsui before the education panel of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's
mini-parliament, to clarify why he is leaving his post.
Tsui's announcement clearly took members of the University Council by surprise,
with one calling the decision a "mystery". After all, earlier this year Tsui
had informed local media of his intention to sign on for another five-year
contract once his present agreement ends next August.
Council chairman Leong Che-hung praised Tsui for his contributions to the
university but also said that his successor should be a better manager and have
more finely tuned political antennae.
"The vice chancellor has to have management ability," Leong said. "Also,
importantly, he needs to know what should be done and what should not be done.
I think it is political sense."
A job description that includes a heightened political role may not sit well
with many HKU students, faculty and alumni - or with the rest of the people of
Hong Kong. They want a vice chancellor who will fight vigorously for the
university's autonomy, keeping it at a healthy arm's length from powerful
politicians in Beijing and from the billionaire barons of Hong Kong's business
They are worried - as they should be - that Asia's best university is slipping
away from them.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at
[email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
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