From 1993 to 2001, Anson Chan held the second-highest post in Hong Kong’s government. As both the first ethnic Chinese and the first woman to be appointed to the position, she guided the civil service through one of its most uncertain periods, as the former British colony adjusted to life under Chinese sovereignty.

In the leadup to 1997, Chan oversaw the service’s localisation. Four years after the handover, however, she resigned from her position when she saw that the service she led was veering into unknown and potentially dangerous waters. Chan believed that Hong Kong’s civil service was built as a “genuine meritocracy,” but this system was threatened by the introduction of political appointments in 2002.

Since then, Chan has remained a powerful voice in Hong Kong politics. Cast as the “Conscience of Hong Kong,” she pressed for democracy as a Legislative Councillor, and then as the head of advocacy group Hong Kong 2020.

As a graduate of the University of Hong Kong, she has also become concerned by the HKU Council’s recent decision to defer the appointment of Johannes Chan, a legal scholar unanimously recommended to the post of pro-vice chancellor by a university search committee.

Johannes Chan is also a member of Hong Kong 2020, and many at the university are concerned that his pro-democracy position has made him the target of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Custom dictates that Leung, like the long line of British governors before, take on the role as university chancellor, capable of appointing political allies to prominent roles in the HKU’s Council, or governing body.

HKFP: The HKU Alumni Concern Group petition you signed calls for an end to the convention of having the chief executive automatically serve as chancellor to all of Hong Kong’s universities. However, during your tenure as Chief Secretary this was not an issue of concern. What has changed?

Anson Chan: It wasn’t a concern simply because it was a tradition. Whilst the governor had the power, it was never exercised. In my days, I cannot recollect any occasion when the governor interfered either with appointments or with university policy. He was the ceremonial head. But times have clearly changed.

Not only does the CE exercise the power, but a lot of us think he does it in totally inappropriate ways that interfere with academic freedom. If academic freedom goes, then some of the other freedoms that are associated with it—particularly freedom of ideas, of expression, of the press—will also come under severe pressure.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]Whilst the governor had the power [as chancellor], it was a power that was never exercised.[/mks_pullquote]

In recent years—certainly in the three years that CY Leung has been imposed—we have seen a steady erosion of our lifestyle and core values. You cannot blame Hong Kong people for being extremely concerned.

HKU is the oldest, most venerated university in Hong Kong. It’s always had a reputation for defending academic freedom and excellence. But if we start interfering politically with its internal affairs, how are we going to attract top quality people to the university?

The other thing that concerns us is that you can see the opposition—the pro-Beijing forces—whipping up a frenzy of criticism against the students, exaggerating their behaviour and comparing them to Red Guards. Anyone who knows anything about the Cultural Revolution cannot fathom how there is even an analogy between the two.

You have previously said that you don’t really blame the students for storming the Council chambers on July 28. Can you explain your thoughts behind it?

I understand the students’ frustration. I think that the people who should really have been at the forefront of objecting to this political interference are the staff. Instead, you see the students being much more vocal.

The suggestion is the Council has the power not to approve the appointment or to defer it. So why an exception in the case of Johannes Chan?

Anson Chan at her Causeway Bay office
Anson Chan at her Causeway Bay office. Photo: Emily Chu for HKFP
But staff members don’t necessarily have absolute freedom to be at the forefront. Shouldn’t they be concerned about losing their jobs?

I understand if some staff members are worried about their careers—but this is an issue of such fundamental importance that if you are not prepared to stand up and be counted, you deserve a council with these political overtones.

The students felt it necessary to take matters into their own hands because they didn’t think that other action was getting anywhere. I don’t condone their storming the chamber but it’s not unreasonable for them to say, “We just want you to explain how you arrived at this decision.”

The other thing that worries us is this total lack of transparency. If everything were out in the open then at least people could question. We don’t even seem to be able to do that. They should take into account that the vice-chancellor himself made it quite plain he wanted the appointment made so that he can have a team to help him. Why are they not listening to the vice-chancellor?

I admire Johannes for standing his ground and not capitulating to people trying to persuade him to step down. He cannot be welcoming all these personal attacks, but still he feels that there is a very important issue at stake. It’s taken HKU 100 years to build up its reputation. It doesn’t take a very long time for that to go out of the window.

As one of HKU’s more famous alumni, will you demand at the Emergency General Meeting [of the Convocation, an HKU body comprised of all graduates and teacher] on September 1 that the chief executive no longer serve as chancellor?

I’m not demanding anything. I am saying that this convention needs to be reexamined. If other people have different points of view, we will discuss this in a rational manner. But the thing that concerns a lot of us is this propensity now to label people as either the government’s friends or enemies. We never used to have this sort of situation. Where is our capacity for toleration and diversity?

Did this happen under [former chief executive] Tung Chee-hwa?

In the four years that I was there it never happened. But it’s not only the Chief Executive—it’s the Liaison Office. It’s hard to lay your hands on concrete evidence: but we all know it is happening.

Anson Chan in HKU's Loke Yew Hall
Anson Chan shares her memories in HKU’s Loke Yew Hall during an Arts Faculty farewell to the Main Building. Photo: HKU.
Who should serve as chancellor and how should he or she be appointed?

I don’t necessarily insist that my own views prevail. It’s an issue that warrants public debate. As a responsible and transparent government, the chief executive should welcome debate on these sorts of issues and not decide behind the scenes.

Even if the power of the chancellor was sustained with the chief executive, we want some assurance that the government will not have complete control over tertiary institutions in terms of appointment or policies.

In normal circumstances, you expect whoever is appointed to the Council will speak from a principled position. The question is: today, can you still make that assumption?

What should people at HKU be doing?

There should be insistence on greater transparency and greater accountability. If you are a responsible council and you are transparent in your deliberations, you make a decision and explain to us why you have arrived at this decision.

Why, suddenly, in the case of Johannes Chan, do we have to wait for the provost, when before, for other pro-vice chancellors, you have not felt the need to wait for the provost? It’s just a very lame excuse.

Another charge often thrown at student activists now is to accuse them of politicising the university. What do you say to this?

I really don’t know what they mean by that. Every day we make decisions that, in one form or another, are political.

This is what I also mean by labels. When you use a certain label, people draw conclusions. I think it’s a great shame to place the university in this sort of invidious position. The people who have the best interests of the university at heart really should be examining their own decisions and actions.

I have no doubt that if HKU falls in academic freedom, all the other universities will fall. In fact, to a certain extent you see it happening already.

Is this the result of post-1997 politics?

It’s not the politics after 1997: it is the deliberate policy of one Mr CY Leung. The students are not prepared to see their core values eroded and they’re prepared to do something about it. I admire them for that.

Anson Chan election banner
Banner from Anson Chan’s successful LegCo election campaign. Photo: Wikicommons.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]It’s not the politics after 1997; it is the deliberate policy of one Mr CY Leung.[/mks_pullquote]

Do you see anything that that Hong Kong 2020 can do about this issue in the leadup to the EGM?

We already put out our views about academic freedom. I think members of Hong Kong 2020, particularly if they are alumni, will participate in the EGM. The more people who turn up, the better the chance of having this important issue publicly aired. It is about the system and basic freedoms under assault.

Do you think Johannes Chan will take the position once it is actually offered?

He has already said that he is not prepared to stand down, nor is he prepared to accept then resign the next minute, because there is an important principle involved.

How are you planning on engaging young people in local politics through the Project Citizens Foundation?

The basic assumption is to encourage young people to embrace Hong Kong’s core values and lifestyle and be prepared to do something to protect these freedoms.

We held a public forum called “Freedom of the Press and Its Enemies.” Everybody who participated said it was one of the best they’d attended on this particular issue.

We’re hoping to engage young people through activities and debates. It’s not just about constitutional reforms, but also sustainable development; creating a fair, just and equitable society; the role of government and the business sector; and encouraging young people to engage in healthy pursuits.

How do you hope that getting young people more involved will change Hong Kong’s political landscape?

The [pro-democracy] Umbrella Movement really changed Hong Kong’s political landscape. You have a whole generation of young people who are much more politically aware and prepared to participate in the political process. This is very good for Hong Kong’s future.

We want to encourage anybody to register as voters the minute they turn 18.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]You have a whole generation of young people who are much more politically aware and more prepared to participate in the political process. This is very good for Hong Kong’s future.[/mks_pullquote]

Even if they join the [pro-Beijing] DAB or Liberal Party?

I don’t mind. Young people should be free to make up their own minds. If you want to go join the DAB, fine—but I hope you join them for the right reasons.

Today the government is so fond of spreading disinformation. If you don’t have facts, how can you make a good decision? The first thing to do is to teach young people where to go get facts.

It’s like the government’s misleading teaching material. Ask the government, “Who have you consulted to draw up these materials?” They’ll say, “Elsie Leung and Maria Tam.” Where are the other voices? If the government doesn’t help us defend “One Country, Two Systems” who will? This is what is so disappointing about this current government.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]If the government doesn’t help us defend “One Country, Two Systems” who will?[/mks_pullquote]

I respect Yuen Kwok-yung’s decision [to resign from the Council], but sometimes you just have to stay and fight for a cause that you believe in. If we all throw in the towel, then the government will be even more prepared to walk over us insofar as our basic freedoms are concerned. We need more people who are prepared to look at issues and make a fair assessment about what is in the greater public good.

Yuen was elected from within HKU but there are also appointed outsiders sitting on the Council. Which side do you think is better?

I don’t have any preconceived ideas. I think you can appoint honest, credible people who don’t have axes to grind and aren’t just concerned about their own narrow interests.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others