By Luke de Pulford
Academic honours are an odd phenomenon. Just ask honouris causae Dr Kermit The Frog, Dr P-Diddy, or Dr Celine Dion. Often as not, these degrees and fellowships have more to do with universities’ quest for relevance or cash than a recognition of contribution to intellectual life.
Nevertheless they remain a privilege. Honours reflect the values of the institution bestowing them. They legitimise the recipient and celebrate their achievements.
This is why Aung San Suu Kyi, one-time poster-girl for international human rights, has had many of her titles withdrawn. She failed to address atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya, and consequently many of her decorations were revoked. Fair enough.
And it’s why three members of the House of Lords wrote last week to the President of Wolfson College, Cambridge, to request that Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, be stripped of her honorary fellowship of that College.
Wolfson’s President, Jane Clarke, responded by return: “at this time the college has decided not to take any action over the Honorary Fellowship conferred on Carrie Lam in May 2017.”
Natural opponents of no-platforming (like me) might instinctively baulk. What has Carrie Lam done to deserve special treatment? If we rescind her honour, don’t we have to do the same for the others? Does this mean we have to tear down statues of Cecil Rhodes? Where do you draw the line?
Let’s put the matter into context. This isn’t about free speech. It’s about whether or not it is appropriate to honour a living person who bears responsibility for such a severe decline in rule of law, civil and political freedoms and violations of human rights in a developed society.
I am struggling to think of a living politician who has overseen such a precipitous decline in the fortunes of their constituents. Except ‘constituents’ isn’t the appropriate word as they didn’t elect her.
Lam has turned a famously peaceful, law-abiding and docile city into an international crisis. People are dead because of her decisions. Thousands have suffered injuries or been incarcerated. As I type a 15 year-old boy who had his skull partially crushed by a tear gas canister is fighting for his life. The entire fabric of the city is breaking down. School is cancelled for the foreseeable future.
The Rule of Law has evaporated with riot police meting out their savagery without fear of reprisal and Beijing deciding it will ignore a ruling of the Hong Kong judiciary.
She has allowed the city to be submerged under a colossal cloud of toxic tear-gas, poisoning and burning Hongkongers, even children. She refuses to permit an independent investigation into police brutality, despite their extremely well-publicised and undeniably disproportionate violence.
Worse, she convenes absurd press conferences where excuses are manufactured to justify police behaviour, and where she denounces her own citizens as “enemies of the people” who “have no stake in society”.
“They will never win” she says, as if she’s battling against some unreasonable aggressor, rather than a group of people who just want an independent investigation into police brutality and the universal suffrage they were promised in the Basic Law.
Perhaps worst of all, she has allowed “one country, two systems” to disintegrate. It’s now “one country with a puppet government”. Never mind about the Hong Kong Basic Law or the Joint Declaration – an international treaty designed to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy and human rights, signed by the UK and China and lodged at the United Nations.
Both lie in tatters, shredded by Lam with all the precision and calmness of a career bureaucrat. This was all avoidable. Carrie Lam didn’t avoid it. She made it worse.
So what is Cambridge playing at? Wolfson’s honorary fellowships are for “persons of distinction whom the College holds in high standing”. Do you still hold Carrie Lam in high standing, Wolfson? Her next honour is more likely to be a Magnitsky sanction than an honorary doctorate.
Some possibly relevant pieces of information: Chinese investors put £200 million towards the redevelopment of Cambridge Science Park in 2018. Cambridge and Peking are launching a business school together in Southern China.
Links are so developed that Chinese students who have taken the gaokao test don’t have to sit an entrance exam for Cambridge. Cambridge takes more undergraduates from China than any other foreign country, and four times as many as from the US.
Wolfson’s no exception. They’re raking in the Yuan, taking money from Chinese educational investors, as well as running a flagship bursary scheme entirely funded by an alumnus who is managing director of the Stanford (Beijing) Consultant Co., Ltd.
I’m going to go out on a limb here. Could it be that Wolfson, and Cambridge more broadly, don’t want to revoke Lam’s honour because they know it’ll upset China? Could it be that their overriding concern is how this might hurt their bottom line?
It wouldn’t be the first time. In 2017 Cambridge University Press was caught censoring journal articles that Beijing didn’t like, and was forced to back down. And the trend is unfortunately not limited to one university.
So for Wolfson this must be a struggle. They have to determine the number of deaths and level of rights abuses they are willing to tolerate before telling the world that Lam has dropped in their estimation.
I wouldn’t want to be the person tasked with performing this gruesome calculation – weighing corpses against the financial risks associated with upsetting Beijing. By any reasonable measure, Lam crossed this threshold long ago.
Wolfson should rescind Lam’s honour. But will they? After all, it was a Cambridge alumnus, the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who said “there are few retreats which can escape the penetrating eye of avarice”.
Luke de Pulford is Director of the Arise Foundation, co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response and sits on the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission