Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung has said that the matter of embattled law professor Benny Tai’s employment at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) should be left up to the university itself.
“As the chief executive has already said, concerning the matter of individual professors’ posts at their schools, the university will handle it on its own,” he told reporters following an event on Sunday.
Tai, one of the convenors of the 2014 Occupy protests, was recently condemned by the local and central governments over hypothetical comments relating to Hong Kong independence. At a recent conference in Taiwan, he suggested that if China became democratic, its regions could have self-determination.
A wave of condemnation ignited fears that academic freedom and freedom of speech were being eroded, along with speculation that the backlash was aimed at paving the way for the legislation of Hong Kong’s controversial national security law.
Asked whether he thought it was appropriate for Tai to continue in his post as a professor, Yeung said: “I don’t think it is for me personally to say whether it is appropriate, I’m sure the university will make overall considerations in making its decision.”
Members of the pro-establishment camp have called for Tai to be removed from his post at HKU. Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s representative to China’s top legislative body, asked HKU to consider whether Tai was fit to teach at the university, saying he could be teaching about Hong Kong independence to young people.
Yeung also said that freedom of speech and academic freedom were beliefs that the Hong Kong government remained committed to, but Hong Kong independence was unconstitutional and does not conform to the Basic Law.
“The general public also agrees that it does not benefit Hong Kong’s development.”
Chief executive Carrie Lam said the government has not done anything to influence the matter of Tai’s position at the school: “It must be handled by the University of Hong Kong itself.”
Tai has defended his comments by saying that he did not support independence and that they were made in the context of an academic discussion.
State mouthpiece the People’s Daily published an editorial in its overseas edition on Monday, saying that Tai has always supported independence, and that he should be held accountable by the law for advocating it.
“As for whether Tai should be removed from his teaching position at Hong Kong University, surely Hong Kong University would not go against mainstream public opinion in its decision,” it wrote.
HKU governing council chair Arthur Li previously said Tai’s comments did not represent the university. He said that the school did not have authority to handle the matter unless Tai was breaking the law.
The university’s former chief Peter Mathieson signed a controversial anti-Hong Kong independence statement last September, though he denied it related to discussion of independence.
Around 2,000 of Tai’s supporters rallied for free speech on Saturday outside the legislature.