Around 2,000 staff and students at the University of Hong Kong took part in a silent rally on Tuesday afternoon to protest against the Council’s vote not to appoint Professor Johannes Chan as the pro-vice-chancellor of the University.

The protesters, dressed in black or wearing academic gowns, marched from the visitor centre on Centennial Campus to Sun Yat-sen Place. The group was led by Professors Timothy O’Leary, Joseph Chan and Dr Petula Ho. Others, including Occupy activist Professor Benny Tai and HKU Council student representative Billy Fung Jing-en, were also at the rally.

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Leading the group: Professor Timothy O’Leary, Dr. Petula Ho, Professor Douglas Kerr. Photo: HKFP.

“We march in silence to demonstrate to ourselves and the city of Hong Kong what a university would be like if its academic staff and students are silent,” Professor Timothy O’Leary, Head of School of Humanities and organiser of the protest, said.

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Photo: Human Rights in China.

He also said that there had been a climate of fear in the university for the past six months and that they wished to dispel that fear. “We will no longer be afraid to speak out,” he said.

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Poster for the silent rally at HKU.

The group said that they reject the decision of the HKU Council on September 29, and that what has happened has been a slow and steady campaign of political interference, undermining the autonomy of the university.

They also asked the chairman of the HKU Council to explain the nature of the decision and to review the governance structure of the university and of all the universities in Hong Kong.

“In particular, one demand we would make is that the Chief Executive of Hong Kong should not be the Chancellor of any university in this city.”

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Protesters at the HKU rally. Photo: HKFP.

A group called “HKU Vigilance” will be set up following the rally to monitor the situation and to support staff who are concerned about encroachment on academic freedom, organisers of the protest said.

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Professor Douglas Kerr. Photo: HKFP.

“I’m not entirely confident that these demands will be met. I think it will be in the interests of the university if the Council explained why they made the decision,” said Professor Douglas Kerr of the School of English. “The little information we have on the decision-making process has not presented us with very persuasive reasons for rejecting Johannes Chan. Meanwhile, the reasons for accepting him are…very strong and publicly known.”

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Professor Eric Cheung Tat-ming. Photo: HKFP.

“I think it’s a dignified way to express our views,” said Professor Eric Cheung Tat-ming of the Law Faculty of HKU, explaining why he took part in the rally. “It’s not a matter of just the appointment of Johannes Chan. We believe that there was political interference which caused the Council members to act contrary to usual practice, rejecting the recommendation of the committee and pretending to be ‘super scholars’…it’ll make any appointment very difficult in the future. How could these people who are outsiders and do not know anything about academics make a judgment on whether [Johannes Chan] is qualified?”

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JMSC Associate Professor Fu King-wa. Photo: HKFP.

Others also praised HKUSU President and Council representative Billy Fung. “I think it’s very unfortunate to have such a breach of confidentiality. But I appreciate Mr Billy Fung’s action – [he’s] striking a balance between keeping confidentiality and justice, and finally he chose justice. I respect his decision. I think it’s a very hard [one], but he has a justifiable explanation for the action,” said Journalism and Media Studies Centre Associate Professor Fu King-wa.

In a meeting of the Council of the University of Hong Kong last Tuesday evening, 12 Council members voted against the appointment of former HKU law dean Professor Johannes Chan while eight voted in favour, thus blocking his appointment in spite of the search committee’s recommendation. Student representative Billy Fung later released a statement detailing the reasons cited by council members during the meeting, breaching confidentiality rules.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.