By N.Jayaram

So the University of Hong Kong, having slid rapidly in the graph of the world’s best – and it had been high among the top 50 until recently – is unmindful of losing ground further and going downhill.

In not choosing Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice-chancellor, it has signed off its claim to being one of the globe’s topmost institutions of higher learning. And it had truly deserved to be ranked as one of the world’s best, as shall be explained presently.

Let me, now a resident of the southern Indian city of Bangalore, set out why I am anguished over this dastardly development in Hong Kong.

File Photo:Johannes Chan. Photo: HKFP.

After having been a professional journalist for more than 25 years – in New Delhi, Beijing and Hong Kong – I applied to and was accepted to study human rights law at the Faculty of Law in the University of Hong Kong in the autumn of 2006. I had worked for the Press Trust of India news agency in India in New Delhi and as its Beijing correspondent for more than six years until late 1994 and for Agence France-Presse news agency in Hong Kong from early 1995 for 11 years. Anyone reporting on India, China and other parts of Asia cannot but be aware of the enormity of human rights abuses taking place in the continent and elsewhere.

Having learned that non-law graduates were allowed to take a couple of Masters courses at HKU’s law faculty, I applied in early 2006 for the LLM in Human Rights programme. After some initial hiccups over the university’s then mindless and racist assumptions regarding the English language skills of peoples from some climes, I got admission.

We had the choice of doing the programme full-time in two semesters or part-time in four. I chose to do it full-time and found it extremely tough-going. We had to take eight courses in all which meant attending at least four classes of three hours each per week for which massive preparation was required. Before each class, we had to read prescribed book chapters or sometimes hundreds of pages of material thrust in the Faculty’s pigeon-holes set apart for each student. It took several hours or the whole day to prepare for class. In addition, students were expected to make class presentations and write papers running into thousands of words.

In addition, the Faculty regularly hosted talks, seminars and conferences which students were encouraged to attend. The then director of the Human Rights Programme had made it clear to us that she would be watching out for who did. In other words our participation not only in the classroom but outside of it counted for overall assessment. Professor Chan, the Dean, had ensured that the Faculty was humming with activity throughout the year. One of the regular visitors to the Faculty has been Professor Jerome A. Cohen, arguably the greatest living authority on China’s legal system.

Fu Hualing. Photo: Human Rights in China via Youtube.

Many internationally renowned experts were teaching there then: Professors Hurst Hannum now back at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University (he was then the Sir Y.K. Pao Professor of Public Law), Suzannah Linton, Fu Hualing, Kelly Loper, Puja Kapai and visiting Professor Stephen P. Marks from Harvard University among others. Some then recent members of the faculty visited for seminars and conferences. They include illustrious names among human rights law academics such as Professors Yash Ghai and Andrew Byrnes.

Among my classmates were two prominent members of Hong Kong’s legal circles: Kevin Zervos, SC, (then Deputy Director of Prosecutions, HKSAR, who later went on to become Director of Prosecutions and then judge of the High Court of Hong Kong) and Paul Harris, SC, one of the most distinguished human rights lawyers I’ve met who’d represented the redoubtable “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung in the courts and had already authored a book on the Right to Demonstrate.

File Photo: Kevin Zervos.

In addition to the eight courses we were required to take, we had the option of “auditing”, i.e. sitting in on but not taking exams in, other courses on offer in the faculty as also any others in the university. This meant we would receive the prescribed reading material to prepare for the classes.

I audited the Human Rights in Hong Kong course that Professor Chan taught. Noticing that I was sitting right at the back of the class in the second session, he made it clear that all students, including those “auditing” had to fully participate in classroom activity, including making class presentations and writing papers. There was a certain intensity and rigour that he brought to his lectures. We were given texts of cases that had come up before Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal and he would rattle off some salient points in them. I could see that the students taking it as a credit course, especially those with a bachelor’s degree in law were furiously underlining or highlighting the paragraphs he pointed out. ‘Test’ and ‘balance’ were words that often figured in his lectures, which covered not only human rights issues but also those of massive corruption and environmental degradation (such as the encroachment of Victoria Harbour).

University of Hong Kong. Photo: Wikicommons.

Professor Chan set a 48-hour take-home exam which I was not required to take as I was merely “auditing”. When I saw the questions, I heaved a sigh of relief. They were tough and I could only have attempted them had I gone through all of the reading material word by word instead of merely skimming through and had I hung on to every word of Professor Chan’s in class.

When it came to grading, the teachers were expected to be stingy, especially with ‘A’s. There was a curve along which the grades had to fall, meaning few ‘A’s and many ‘B’s and ‘C’s. A professor once told me that an assignment I took part in consisting of a class presentation and a paper deserved an ‘A’ although he’d given me an ‘A Minus’. “Well, I’m just a nasty fellow,” he said jokingly. What he meant was that he had to go by the Faculty’s strict rules on grading. Professor Marks from Harvard who taught a crash course in Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had, I learned, been generous with ‘A Pluses’ but that they had to be marked down. In other words HKU Law Faculty was far harsher than a Harvard law professor in the way it judged its students.

Johannes Chan Man-mun. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Such was the rigorous regime Professor Chan presided over. There is no doubt that had he been appointed pro-vice-chancellor, he would have brought equal rigour and discipline to the job and ensured that the university remained a vibrant place of learning attracting talent from all over the world.

HKU is a great University, albeit a rather racist one as reflected in the make-up of its non-teaching staff and, disturbingly, in some teaching appointments as well. HKU fails to acknowledge sufficiently that it was founded with some financial help from a Zoroastrian named Hormusjee Naorojee Mody. Had a White or Chinese person been in his place, imagine the size of the plinth erected in memory in a prominent spot. But Mr Mody, a person of Indian origin with Persian roots, gets next to nothing in terms of acknowledgement apart from a bust, and that too one donated by the city’s tiny Zoroastrian community, in an obscure staircase.

The people of Hong Kong, which claims to be “Asia’s World City”, deserve to have HKU retained as one of the best in the globe but decisions such as the rejection of Professor Chan hardly bode well.

N. Jayaram is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. He has worked at a news agency in India in New Delhi for nine years and as its Beijing correspondent for more than six.

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