University of Hong Kong’s vice chancellor candidate Zhang Xiang stressed the importance of “boundaries” when asked about issues concerning freedom of speech and academic freedom.

The university announced Chinese-American scholar Zhang Xiang as its recommendation for the next president and vice-chancellor of the school on Wednesday. Zhang will succeed incumbent vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson, who resigned in February ahead of his contract’s scheduled date of completion in 2019.

Zhang Xiang. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

At a question-and-answer session for alumni on Friday, Zhang was asked to give a straight answer on whether he would allow students at the school to discuss Hong Kong independence.

In response, Zhang said he believed that academic freedom was a core value of the university, as it allows the exploration of different ideas and opinions. However, he also said that “everything has to be said in the context of the boundaries.”

“I think, actually, we have to hold this value very dearly, but at the same time, I think we shouldn’t let unlimited… I read the newspaper, some of the people lost their sons and daughters and there are some remarks on that – I don’t think that’s ethical.” Zhang said those were areas where they have to be “very careful.”

Zhang Xiang speaking on Friday. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Student union president Wong Ching-tak told HKFP that, when speaking to students in a similar session earlier that morning, Zhang did not respond directly to a question on how he would have handled the pro-independence banner controversy on campuses across the city in September.

“He said was not in contact with other vice-chancellors and he just got to Hong Kong. So he just said that he definitely will defend freedom of speech and will allow everyone to express different views.”

However, in the morning session with the university’s staff members, Zhang said that student debate on independence was acceptable as long as it was “within the law,” professor Timothy O’Leary told HKFP. Zhang then mentioned hate speech restrictions in the US.

Zhang was asked what his views were on “teachers who teach students to break the law” – an accusation that has been directed at law professor and Occupy co-founder Benny Tai. Zhang said that “freedom comes with a responsibility,” and said there were ethical and legal boundaries to respect.

Asked how he intends to catch up on politics within the school – such as the rejection of liberal scholar Johannes Chan for the post of pro-vice-chancellor and the student protests following governing board chair Arthur Li’s appointment – Zhang admitted that he expects a learning curve, but added a personal anecdote.

He recounted that he only had US$16 in his pocket when he first arrived in the United States. “And I [caught] up pretty well.”

‘Nothing substantial’

Activist and University of Hong Kong alumnus Alex Chow told the media following the session that Zhang’s responses – such as how Zhang would protect freedom of speech in the university or face the political turmoil in the city – shows that he was not familiar with the situation in Hong Kong. “Nothing very substantial was said,” Chow added.

Alex Chow. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Chow said Zhang gave unimpressive comments when it came to sensitive questions or political issues, and failed to provide specific views on how he would handle matters. He said he believed that Zhang took a safe stance on these questions as he has not officially assumed the position yet.

Chow also said he hoped to ask how Zhang would handle future challenges such as the upcoming trial of Benny Tai, who is facing public nuisance charges for his involvement in the protests.

He said that he wished to know what Zhang would do if Tai was convicted, as it is a question that involves the university’s academic freedom and its treatment of outspoken academics.

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.