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    Greater China
     Nov 1, 2011

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 change.

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 invite himself?

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 class.

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 world.

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 kewing56@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

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