Arthur Li, chair of University of Hong Kong’s governing council, has denied that Beijing’s office in Hong Kong often interfered with university affairs.

Before an interview with former lawmaker Emily Lau on Wednesday, Li told a South China Morning Post reporter with a smile: “Oh SCMP, I need to talk to you later… fake news.” He was referring to an interview the newspaper conducted with outgoing HKU President Peter Mathieson, who was quoted as saying that he received advice from the Liaison Office “all the time.”

During the interview, Li said he was shocked by Mathieson’s allegations as he was never informed. Li read out a message from Mathieson to him: “SCMP typically misquoted me. They asked if I was put under pressure, and I said ‘all the time’.”

Arthur Li. Photo: Screenshot.

“They asked if the Liaison Office talked to me and I said yes. They then conflated the two. I never called it interference, I talked about advice,” Li quoted Mathieson as saying.

Li said he attended meals with Liaison Office officials several times in a year, but they did not give advice on personnel appointments or the issue of dealing with pro-Hong Kong independence ideas on campus: “They basically are in a listening mood, because that is their job to listen to what we in Hong Kong think or want to do.”

For instance, Li said, the Office did not tell him not to promote legal scholar Johannes Chan. Li was embroiled in controversy in 2015 over the rejection of Chan for the pro-vice-chancellor role, following frequent attacks against Chan by pro-Beijing media.

Li maintained his past stance that Chan, the only Honorary Senior Counsel in Hong Kong, was not academically qualified for the job, since he does not have a doctoral degree. According to the SCMP interview, Mathieson did not have any regrets in supporting Chan.

Li said: “The president admitted publicly at the Council that he did not formally read Chan’s publications… he was not paying close enough attention.”

Contract extension

Li also dismissed Mathieson’s claim in the interview that he failed to engage him during the fourth year of his five-year contract about renewal. Matheison claimed that the lack of discuss prompted him to consider the top job at the University of Edinburgh.

Peter Mathieson. File photo: HKU.

Li said Mathieson took the HKU job in April 2014 and he was yet to enter his fourth year: “He asked me for a contract extension of five more years in his second year. I was already the council chair at the time, and I said we should talk about this again when you are in the third or fourth year of the job.”

According to Li, Mathieson already mentioned the potential University of Edinburgh job when he asked about contract renewal in 2016. Mathieson resigned in February last year. HKFP has contacted him for comment.

“If [Mathieson] was confident that he was doing a good job, frankly it was very difficult to fire the president… no one planned to fire him. But we have to be clear that we should do things in accordance with the rules,” Li said.

Nonetheless, Li said Mathieson was not a bad president, despite scathing reviews from an Academic Staff Association survey. Li said only a minority participated in the poll. “He worked hard in a lot of aspects, but no one is perfect. I believe most people would support a contract extension,” Li said.

New developments

Li extended his support to incoming president Zhang Xiang, saying that he came from the University of California, Berkeley – the most open school in the US: “It is very unfair to say that, because he is from the mainland, he is going to interfere with [academic freedom].”

Zhang Xiang and Arthur Li. Photo: HKU.

Student union cabinet

No candidates have applied to run in the cabinet elections for the university’s student union. Li said: “The student union should reflect on itself – the intention of the student union is to protect students’ interests, our halls, our facilities, our teaching, but not to do politics… barging into council meetings.”

He said some students told him that past student unions did not represent them and thus they would not join the election: “What’s the point in voting for you when you guys were crazy and outrageous? So they abstained, [and] there was no cabinet,” Li said.

But Lau said political parties have branches at Cambridge University where Li studied. Li replied: “They did not use violence though.”

“Most of our students are very good and rational. They do not want a minority of students hurting the student union’s name,” he said.

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.