The chairman of the University of Hong Kong’s governing council has likened young advocates of Hong Kong independence to supporters of Brexit and U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, who he said are driven by their frustration towards the establishment.

Arthur Li Kwok-cheung was speaking to around a hundred HKU alumni and staff members at a university forum on Wednesday. He said it was a “complete waste of time” to discuss Hong Kong independence, which he considered to be an irrational idea.

Arthur Li. File Photo: CUHK.

He also compared independence with cigarette-smoking: the more young people are told not to smoke, the more they want to do it. Li said Hong Kong needs China’s economic support and supply of water and food. If China did cut ties with Hong Kong, he said, citizens would beg Beijing: “Please, please, please help us.”

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who attended the event, said afterwards that Li should respect the independent thinking of students and let them engage in the discussion. He said criticism should be made after proper discussions on the topic.

‘Awful teaching staff’

The Council chairman also criticised some faculty members for being “mediocre.”

“Some are awful,” he said, adding that whenever they are criticised, they use academic freedom to shield their incompetence. He said he has never heard outstanding staff claim any kind of political interference with regards to academic freedom.

He said the continuing drop in HKU’s international ranking is because the university has become complacent and lacks a sense of competition.

Ip Kin-yuen. File Photo: Stand News.

An audience member asked Li to back up his argument with examples. Li responded that he was only talking about a few extreme cases, and that most teaching staff are diligent. He added that he could only “name and shame” teaching staff in the hope that they will make improvements.

Ip criticised Li for exaggerating the issue if Li believed it is a problem with a minority. “As the Council chair, I hope you will be more encouraging rather than amplifying minor issues which may affect the morale of teaching staff.”

The lawmaker also slammed Li for implying that those who speak up for academic freedom are not hardworking enough.

HKU controversy

Li has made controversial remarks on previous occasions. In January, he compared students who protested against his appointment to the Council chairmanship as people who “took drugs” and took “irrational” actions.

Considered to be an ally of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, Li was appointed by Leung last December to Council chairman amid strong opposition.

Arthur Li being surrounded at a sudent protest. File

The appointment added fuel to the already embattled HKU Council, which had experienced a series of controversial events after it rejected last year the appointment of liberal legal scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun to pro-vice-chancellor, apparently on questionable grounds such as Chan’s lack of a doctoral degree.

The decision was criticised as being politically motivated, targeting Chan and his colleague Benny Tai, who organised a civil disobedience campaign which led to the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests. HKU teaching staff held a silent march in response to alleged political interference in academic freedom.

In May, Li said he will stand up for academics if there were incidents that hinder the academic freedom of the university.

Li was the secretary for education between 2002 and 2007. During his office, he courted controversy by proposing mergers between the Chinese University and two other universities.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.