Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Benny Tai is to be fired for misconduct by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), where he is currently serving as an associate law professor.

The HKU Council voted 18 to 2 on Tuesday in favour of removing the Umbrella Movement leader from the law faculty.

Benny Tai. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Undergraduate representative of the council Nathaniel Lei told the press after the meeting that he was enraged by the decision: “It was a blatant trampling of academic freedom and the autonomy of the university.”

Tai, 56, has been teaching at the law faculty since 1991. Along with sociology professor Chan Kin-man and reverend Chu Yiu-ming, he was a co-founder of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign, which led to the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, where demonstrators occupied main roads near the government headquarters for 79 days.

Last August, he was convicted of conspiracy and incitement to commit public nuisance over the Umbrella Movement. He was released from jail pending an appeal last August.

‘End of academic freedom’

Responding to the decision, Tai told journalists that it was not made by the university, but by “an authority beyond the University through its agents.”

The University of Hong Kong. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“It marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong. Academic staff in education institutions in Hong Kong are no longer free to make controversial statements to the general public about politically or socially controversial matters. Academic institutions in Hong Kong cannot protect their members from internal and outside [interference].”

He said he was grateful to HKU and “heart-broken” to witness its demise: “I will continue my research and teaching on the rule of law in another capacity. My fight for Hong Kong’s rule of law also will not stop. I have the confidence to see the rebirth of a free HKU in the future.”

Nathaniel Lei told the press that, if Tai wins his appeal against his criminal conviction, the council decision may be reviewed. He added that HKU Vice-chancellor Zhang Xiang did not cast a vote in the meeting.

Nathaniel Lei. Photo: StandNews screenshot.

HKU Student Union President Edy Jeh condemned the council decision. She said there would be follow-up action, including a petition advocating reform of the council, as she said its composition might have led to decisions that favour members own interests: “I believe that the council made this decision out of political concerns.”

In a press release later on Tuesday, the University of Hong Kong said it had “resolved a personnel issue concerning a teaching staff member.”

“Following the stringent and impartial due process, and after careful deliberations and considerations, the Council has come to a decision. The staff member concerned is being informed of the outcome accordingly. We hope members of the public understand that this is an internal personnel matter of the University and that the autonomy of the institution should be respected,” the statement said.

HKU Council is the governing and management body of the university. Its members include six individuals who are appointed by the institution’s chancellor – Hong Kong’s chief executive. It also includes six public trustees appointed by the Council who are not employed by HKU, several teachers, one undergraduate and one postgraduate student.

Last year, the Committee of Enquiry into Possible Good Cause under the HKU Senate ruled that there was not sufficient reason to dismiss Tai upon investigation into complaints made against him.

It is not the first time the ruling body has been in the spotlight. The HKU Council’s rejection of former law dean Johannes Chan’s appointment prompted uproar in 2015. The Council has previously denied that Beijing interferes in its affairs.


Correction 21:30: This article was corrected to reflect that Tai is an associate law professor, not an assistant law professor.

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Rachel Wong

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.