Outgoing University of Hong Kong Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson appears to be leaving the city pretty much the way he came in—maligned, befuddled and misunderstood. His troubled, abbreviated tenure as head of Hong Kong’s oldest and most prestigious university can only be described as a failure during which HKU’s standing and reputation have been diminished.

The fact is, however, the accomplished, previously much-honoured English nephrologist never stood a chance in the shark-infested waters of Hong Kong. He was simply eaten up by the city’s polarised politics—at which, even now, as he prepares to depart this month less than four years after he assumed his post in April of 2014, he remains a hapless ingenue.

Peter Mathieson
Peter Mathieson. Photo: HKU.

The biggest shark, of course, was HKU governing council chair Arthur Li Kwok-cheung—aka “King Arthur” and “The Tsar” for his domineering personality and autocratic leadership style—who outmanoeuvred and undermined Mathieson at every turn. This relationship was a one-sided mismatch from the get-go.

The 58-year-old Mathieson, formerly dean of the faculty of medicine and dentistry at the University of Bristol, came into his HKU post as a mild-mannered academic with a liberal democratic political worldview and little knowledge of the inner workings of Hong Kong. Li, on the other hand—although, like Mathieson, a Cambridge University-educated doctor of medicine—is the scion of a prominent Hong Kong banking family steeped in the city’s power politics both prior to and following the 1997 handover from British to Chinese sovereignty.

Li, 72, grandson of Bank of East Asia founder Li Koon-chun, has been hobnobbing with Hong Kong’s political and business elite for decades. He currently sits on the chief executive’s Executive Council and during his time as vice chancellor of Chinese University (1996-2002) and secretary for education (2002-2007) built a reputation for an imperial management style that often flattened opponents and left underlings cowed and dispirited.

While technically Mathieson, as HKU president, was not an underling, that is certainly how he was treated by Li on the governing council. The most vivid example of this occurred when, on September 29, 2015, the council voted to reject the appointment of Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice chancellor after Chan, who served admirably as dean of the faculty of law from 2002 to 2014, had been unanimously recommended by a selection committee headed by Mathieson.

Arthur Li.
Arthur Li Kwok-cheung. Photo: Stand News.

During the prolonged Chan controversy, Li acted as the council’s hatchet man for the central government’s liaison office and then Chief Executive Leung Cheung-yun, who had appointed Li council chair for situations precisely of this nature. The powers that be in Beijing did not want anyone like Chan—a prominent human rights and pro-democracy advocate who had supported the student-led, 79-day Occupy movement in 2014—to assume such a prominent position at Hong Kong’s best-known university.

Thus, aided by a concerted anti-Chan campaign in pro-Beijing media outlets such as Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, Leung and Li went to work behind the scenes.

After much wrangling, rowdy student protests and repeated delays, a secret council ballot was taken, and Chan was voted down, 12-8.

Mathieson—who, along with then CUHK Vice Chancellor Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, had won cheers and applause from student protesters when he stepped into the streets during the Occupy campaign to urge them to eschew violence as they exercised their right to free speech—never regained his authority following the Chan fiasco.

In the end, he wound up speaking out of both sides of his mouth, expressing respect for Li and council decisions while at the same time claiming to uphold the interests of faculty and students who felt their university’s institutional autonomy had been compromised and academic freedom put under threat.

peter mathieson and hk independence

In the ensuing years, the rising support for Hong Kong independence on university campuses clearly bewildered Mathieson. His liberal inclination to support freedom of speech conflicted with the central government’s pronounced “red line” against advocacy of independence.

Under pressure from all sides, he agreed last September to sign an ambiguously worded joint statement issued by 10 Hong Kong universities condemning “recent abuses” of freedom of expression while opposing “Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law.”

In an extensive interview with the South China Morning Post published last week, Mathieson said that he signed on to the statement to avoid isolating HKU even though he disagreed with its wording, which he thought wrongfully conflated abuses of free speech with discussion of Hong Kong as an independent city-state.

In the SCMP interview, Mathieson also stated that he had intended to stay on at HKU but became discouraged when, approaching the fourth year of his five-year contract, Li had not mentioned the possibility of renewal to him. So when the University of Edinburgh came calling, he jumped at the opportunity to be vice chancellor there, albeit at a lower salary than he earned at HKU.

If Mathieson had hoped to escape all the maddening pressures of his job in Hong Kong as he transitions to Scotland, he was sadly mistaken. Indeed, his checkered HKU legacy has preceded him to Edinburgh and is already fodder for British media and no doubt a hot topic of discussion among faculty and students at his new place of employment.

The exceptionally poor ratings Mathieson received in a HKU Academic Staff Association survey conducted in December through early January drew particular attention in The Guardian. In that survey, 78 per cent of the respondents did not feel Mathieson had “effectively protected academic freedom” while 80 per cent said he did not understand “the needs of the students and the staff.”

In Mathieson’s defence, only 609 of the 2,060-member staff responded to the survey, but nevertheless the results are damning and surely raise alarms in Edinburgh prior to his arrival.

Arthur Li
Arthur Li. Photo: OurTV screenshot.

Mathieson may also have hoped that he could leave town after finally, via the SCMP interview, getting the last word in his fraught relationship with Li, but he should have known King Arthur would never let that happen. Appearing on an Internet radio show hosted by former Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing last week, Li dismissed the SCMP interview as “fake news” and read out text messages he had received from Mathieson saying the Post reporter had misquoted him about political pressures, including calls from the liaison office, that he was under as HKU chief.

The SCMP later corrected a sentence in the article stating that Mathieson was offered advice by the liaison office “all the time” to read “several times,” but that correction did not alter the overall impression given by the article of a vice chancellor under siege from the beginning to the end of his time at HKU.

“I wish higher education was not so politicised,” Mathieson told the reporter at one point. “I think it would be simpler for people like me if politics wasn’t such a complicating factor.”

Will things be any different for HKU’s incoming vice chancellor, Zhang Xiang, a mainland-born naturalised American citizen who created the world’s first “invisibility cloak” as a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkley?

Like Mathieson in the immediate aftermath of his appointment, Zhang, 54, has come under attack for the scant knowledge of the city and its politics that he displayed during his December visit. He was also very cautious, if not downright dodgy, in his answers to media questions about threats to HKU’s institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

With many observers worried that Hong Kong itself is gradually losing the autonomy it was promised under the “one country, two systems” agreement determined at handover, Zhang’s mainland background and academic connections are an additional source of concern.

Daggers are already out among the staff association and student body, so Zhang should expect no honeymoon period and will require a steep learning curve to navigate the increasingly politicised world of Hong Kong’s universities.

And, of course, King Arthur aims to be his guiding light.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.