An academic staff union at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) has criticised the school’s new policy related to “malicious” complaints, saying that it would introduce “white terror” for whistleblowers.

The university in March amended its policy on research integrity which now states that the President may take appropriate action against staff members or students who make complaints “maliciously and without reasonable cause.”

The actions include issuing a written reprimand or removing the staff member from particular duties, as well as initiating a charge against the student before the disciplinary committee.

The University of Hong Kong
The University of Hong Kong. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The school’s Academic Staff Association (ASA) said the new policy was ironic in that the amendment, intended to foster higher standards in research integrity, at the same time tightened the whistleblower policy.

“Evidence rather than faith should be the most important element in whistleblowing,” the association said in an email to all staff members on Thursday.

“How can one measure faith which is a subjective judgement? It is almost embarrassing for a world class university now uses faith to decide upon whether to punish a staff member or not. ASA considers this measure is a deterrent for any staff that is brave enough to step up to whistleblow and introduces perceived white terror on campus.”

A case of falsified research data at HKU related to chemistry professor Yang Dan was exposed by then-colleague Dr Roger Wong Hoi-fung, and later confirmed in 2016, but no one was held responsible.

dr yang
Yang Dan. File

Wong, previously an assistant professor at chemistry, had said he and several other whistleblowers faced acts of retaliation, including termination of employment, being barred from laboratories, and being accused of stealing computers and data.

Wong chose to leave HKU and move to Hong Kong Baptist University.

‘Visible innuendo’

In an interview with Ming Pao in June 2016, HKU President Peter Mathieson said whistleblowers must be motivated by good-faith, taking the public interest into consideration.

But the ASA said Mathieson’s statement was “quite a visible innuendo about Dr. Roger Wong’s faith in whistleblowing” the case.

“Till now, Mathieson has not launched any form of investigation into the massive retaliation that the whistleblowers suffered despite complaints have been filed, but ironically introduced specific penalties for ‘bad faith’ whistleblowers,” its statement read.

“ASA feels that the University is taking a wrong direction to uphold the research integrity,” it added. “Without anyone [who] whistleblows, [the world’s] highest standard of research integrity on paper is meaningless.”

William Cheung sing-wai
Head of University of Hong Kong Academic Staff Association William Cheung Sing-wai. File

The ASA also demanded HKU reopen the investigation of alleged research misconduct by Yang, should the school consider there were unacceptable practices under the new policy.

“This scandal becomes the laughing stock in the world as no one is held responsible for tampered data, leaving the only conclusion [that] data tampered itself,” it said.

Mathieson resigned as the head of HKU citing personal reasons in February and will step down in January 2018. He accepted an invitation to head the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.