The strong-arm, in-your-face appointment of Arthur Li Kwok-cheung as chairman of the University of Hong Kong’s governing council can only be interpreted as a declaration of war on both the students and the faculty at that once-proud and now-tarnished institution.

But it seems war is what Leung Chun-ying, who by dint of his position as chief executive also serves as chancellor of the city’s public universities, desires at this stage of his fractious tenure as Hong Kong’s leader.

Arthur Li. File Photo: Stand News.

It’s been clear for months that Li, who has branded HKU’s student union president “a liar” and compared protesting students to Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, would be the worst possible choice to succeed Leong Che-hung as head of the council. His appointment can only further inflame the atmosphere at the university, which is still smouldering in the wake of the council’s patently political rejection of Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice-chancellor and the fallout from the 79-day, student-led Occupy movement. At the same time the appointment will have a chilling effect on academic freedom in general in Hong Kong.

In an already bitterly divided city, Leung has chosen a man who is (second only to himself) the city’s most divisive political figure to be the guiding light of governance for its oldest and most venerable university. If Leung is waging a war of attrition, then Li’s dictatorial style — he was called “King Arthur” and “the Tsar” when he served as vice-chancellor of Chinese University from 1996 to 2002 — is intended to wear down and ultimately tame the forces of opposition to his unpopular rule among HKU faculty, students and alumni.

HKU Alumni Concern Group at a protest (left) and Arthur Li (right).

Of course, that clumsy strategy won’t work as those forces are simply too strong, stubborn and numerous. But it’s going to be an ugly and unproductive drama to watch if Li’s checkered past is also any guide to the future at HKU.

As vice-chancellor of CUHK, Li oversaw the expansion of the university to include schools of tourism and hotel management, public health and nursing, but his strong-willed, heavy-handed leadership style alienated students and faculty. Moreover, his grand proposal to merge CUHK with the University of Science and Technology so as to outsize and outshine HKU was flatly rejected amid howls of protests from faculties at both universities.

Later, as education minister in the Tung Chee-hwa administration, Li made another headstrong attempt at a merger involving CUHK, this time with the Institute of Education—again with the unstated aim of showing up HKU.

In 2004, Li allegedly threatened to “rape” the institute by decreasing the number of  students it was allowed to admit if its administration did not agree to the merger.

Showing what has become a recurring intolerance for dissent, Li demanded that the institute’s then vice-president, Bernard Luk Hung-kay, issue a statement condemning teachers who had organised a protest against the proposed merger. When Luk refused, Li reportedly threatened: “I’ll remember this. You’ll pay!”

Despite the threats and bullying, however, this Li merger scheme, like the earlier one, fell through after stirring great controversy and animosity, which were the chief hallmarks of his five-year stint as Hong Kong’s education chief.

Now, thanks to Leung’s bad judgment and equally combative nature, Li brings this legacy to HKU, an institution for whose liberal traditions he has displayed an undisguised contempt.

An academic freedom rally at HKU last year. Photo: HKFP.

For his support of Leung in the small-circle election for chief executive, Li was rewarded in 2012 with an appointment as a non-official member of the Executive Council, which he used as a bully pulpit two years later to denounce the student leaders of the Occupy movement for behaving like Red Guards and to suggest that, rather than organise a class boycott, they should leave the university altogether.

Li also accused unnamed HKU professors of ignoring their research and teaching responsibilities to the detriment of the university’s international standing.

For these typically inflammatory and entirely unhelpful remarks, Li was again rewarded with another Leung appointment—this time to HKU’s governing council, where he was instrumental in last September’s 12-8 vote rejecting the eminently qualified Chan as pro-vice-chancellor in charge of managing academic staffing and resources.

No matter that Chan had served admirably from 2002 to 2014 as dean of HKU’s faculty of law or that he had been unanimously recommended by a university search committee headed by HKU President Peter Mathieson.

The fact that he had also been a high-profile supporter of Occupy was clearly more than Leung could stomach and, in the end, despite the overwhelming support Chan received from HKU students, faculty and alumni, his appointment was blocked by Li and other Leung cronies on the council who are beholden to the powers that be in Beijing.

Li would later call HKU student union president Billy Fung Jing-en a liar after Fung leaked anti-Chan comments made by Li during a council meeting that was supposed to remain confidential, but it turned out that Fung had accurately represented the remarks of Li and others on the council.

Billy Fung. Photo: Stand News.

The real lie was poorly disguised in the reasons stated by the 12 Leung lackeys who, for fear of provoking the ire of the Chinese leadership, rejected a candidate — the sole candidate — who was exceptionally well qualified for the job.

In resolute defiance of this poisonous history, Leung has chosen to promote the man responsible for spewing much of that poison to the head of the council table.

Leung and his masters in Beijing may think he appears tough and firm in this decision, putting Chan and his Occupy allies in their proper place of humiliation, but it is yet another red flag and rallying cry for his many detractors and for anyone who is concerned about academic freedom in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s political wars continue; sadly, its best-known university has become the latest victim.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.