A state media commentary has demanded pro-democracy scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun to withdraw his own nomination to the post of pro-vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.

State media People’s Daily published a commentary on Monday on the deferral of Chan’s appointment to the post of pro-vice chancellor that led to protests by students and alumni on Tuesday last week. The article said that for Chan “to withdraw his appointment is the best option in defending HKU and to maintain consensus among society.”

The article said that even if Chan was appointed to the post, conflicts would not cease. “The academic standing, international reputation, and the tradition of rational thinking that HKU has established over the past hundred years would be eroded [by Chan’s appointment].”

State media commentary on HKU.
State media commentary on HKU. Photo: HKU/People Daily.

On Tuesday, dozens of students disrupted the meeting of the governing body of HKU in protest against their decision to uphold the deferral of pro-democracy scholar Chan’s appointment as pro-vice chancellor. The council stated that the reason was to “wait for the appointment of a new deputy vice-chancellor.”

Following the incident, two members of the council has resigned from their posts. Leftist newspapers and pro-establishment figures have strongly criticised the students, describing them as “red guards” and calling their actions “disgraceful.” A former head of Chinese University has called for the students to be imprisoned.

On Saturday last week, Chan said in an open letter published on RTHK that he has been using his legal knowledge to serve the public. He said, “This is our responsibility to the public [as intellectuals], and if people consider this as participating in politics or not being engaged in honest work, I’m afraid they might not know what being an intellectual means.”

Commenting on his nomination, Chan said, “If it were only an issue to do with my personal career, I would have withdrawn already … However, this crisis has become a challenge to universities’ persistence towards academic freedom and institutional autonomy. By withdrawing [Chan’s nomination to the post], it will only result in a chilling effect—it is equivalent to giving up on the insistence on academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”

Johannes Chan Man-mun. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Johannes Chan Man-mun. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In the state media article, Chan’s pro-democracy political affiliation and his support for the Occupy protests were questioned. The writer demanded Chan to take responsibility regarding donations to HKU that were used to fund Occupy activities.

Chan was HKU’s former dean of law and is currently a member of the pro-democracy think-tank Hong Kong 2020, led by former chief secretary Anson Chan. He was also involved in an internal investigation regarding donations received by fellow HKU law professor and co-founder of the Occupy Central campaign Benny Tai Yiu-ting. No disciplinary actions were recommended against Chan or Tai following the investigation.

Chan also responded in his open letter that since June 2014 he has been on academic leave. During the Occupy protests, Chan said he was a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.

The article also criticised pan-democrat legislators who it claimed “used all means to make the incident a political decision,” as well as people who had close contact with Chan who leaked internal documents. It added that the “opposition party who used ‘safeguarding institution autonomy’ in name are in fact destroying institution autonomy,” and the issues with HKU today “originated from Occupy Central.”

Civic Party legislator and HKU alumnus Alan Leong Kah-kit has written in an op-ed that “there is no doubt that political interference is to blame” for the delay in appointment. Kevin Lau, former editor-in-chief of Ming Pao, has also suggested that officials of the Hong Kong government and the China Liaison Office were involved in the deferral.

Arthur Lo is an undergraduate student currently on a gap year. During Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement protests, he worked as a fixer, translator and producer for foreign media outlets such as Al-Jazeera.