University of Hong Kong (HKU) President Peter Mathieson has said he had to sign a controversial anti-independence statement with the other heads of other universities in order to avoid “isolation.”

His remarks were written in a document sent to members of the HKU Senate, ahead of a meeting on Tuesday. He said he had discussed the matter with the school’s senior management team before signing the statement in September.

“Reaching an agreement with the other university heads was not straightforward; there were divergent opinions about whether or not to issue a statement at all, what to say and how to say it,” he wrote, according to parts of a leaked document, verified by HKFP.

Peter Mathieson. Photo: Isaac Wong.

The joint statement from ten university heads said: “We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities. All universities undersigned agree that we do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law.”

Mathieson wrote that there was a risk – at one point – that other universities would issue the statement without HKU’s signature.

“The [senior management team] felt that we should try to avoid this isolation outcome and I agreed with that viewpoint. Ultimately the statement was shorter and more ambiguous than I would have wished,” he wrote.

He said it was “totally wrong” and “mischievous” to suggest that he was saying that the discussion of Hong Kong independence was, or is, an abuse of freedom of expression.

“Everyone should know that the abuses to which the statement referred were the hate messages posted at several universities, sadly including HKU. Celebrating 9/11, vilifying others on the basis of their nationality or race and, worst of all, abusing a parent that had recently tragically lost a son cannot be allowed to go unchallenged,” he wrote. “These examples defile the value of freedom of speech and in my opinion have no place in our universities.

Mathieson is to take the reins at the University of Edinburgh next year.

Previously, Mathieson told a Scottish newspaper that politicisation of higher education in Hong Kong is “deeply regrettable,” and that he “at no time said that discussion of Hong Kong independence is an abuse of freedom of expression.”

Photo: HKFP remix.

The joint-statement followed the appearance of pro-independence slogans across university campuses and on student union message boards over the summer.

HKFP has reached out to HKU for comment.

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.