Beijing has backed the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) decision to fire pro-democracy activist and legal scholar Benny Tai for misconduct, hailing the move as a “poetic justice.” The tenured professor has appealed against his dismissal but said it would be a “futile” process.

China’s liaison office in Hong Kong said in a statement on Tuesday night that the removal of Tai from the HKU law faculty was a “purification” of the university’s “normal” teaching order and teaching environment. Expelling the Umbrella Movement leader from campus also showed the institution had “resolutely upheld” the solemnity of its rules and discipline, the office said.

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Benny Tai. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

“The HKU Council’s decision to fire Benny Tai is a poetic justice, a move of justice that complies with popular sentiment,” the statement read.

The Beijing agency accused Tai, who had been teaching at HKU since 1991, of “misleading and poisoning” young students. He was lambasted by the office for coordinating and “inciting” the 79-day Umbrella Movement protests in 2014, last year’s anti-extradition bill movement, and the recent democratic camp primary election.

The office’s spokesman said the 56-year-old associate professor had become “aggravated” after he was released from prison last August, pending an appeal against his conviction for conspiracy and incitement to commit public nuisance over the 2014 mass demonstrations.

The office said Tai’s tactics aimed to achieve electoral success, and criticised his “ten steps to a real mutual destruction” as “spoiling” the city. The steps mapped out events Tai thought could happen in the city in the two coming years.

Luo Huining
Luo Huining, director of China’s liaison office in Hong Kong. Photo: Stand News.

“In his eyes, he will not forsake until he paralyses the SAR government, and seizes the ruling power of the SAR. Benny Tai’s series of words and actions have seriously intensified social conflict in Hong Kong, poisoning Hong Kong’s political environment,” the office wrote, adding that Tai was to blame for his own dismissal.

‘Futile process’

On Wednesday, Tai announced on Facebook that he had submitted an appeal against his dismissal to the HKU Chancellor and Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Tai said he was also discussing with his legal team over whether to launch a legal challenge against the university’s decision.

“Though I know this is a futile process, Carrie Lam cannot evade from her responsibility of infringing Hong Kong’s academic freedom,” he said.

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2014 Umbrella Movement. File photo:, via CC 2.0

The HKU President and Vice-Chancellor Zhang Xiang wrote in an internal staff email on Tuesday that it was inappropriate for him to disclose or discuss the details of Tai’s ousting. He said the entire process for the HKU Council to reach its decision took more than a year, after reviewing a report by the Committee of Enquiry and seeking advice from the HKU Senate, which is chaired by Zhang.

“The staff member has had the opportunity and right to fully present his case and respond to evidence,” Zhang wrote. “The University values diversity of views and vigorous debate, embracing discourse and robust engagement.”

A source familiar with the matter told HKFP on Tuesday that Zhang abstained from voting on the motion.

Umbrella Movement co-founder Chan Kin-man told Apple Daily on Tuesday that the university could only dismiss a tenured professor if it had a “good cause.” Chan, who was released from jail in March over the 2014 protests, said some universities had sacked professors for misconduct or for damaging the university’s reputation.

He deemed Tai’s pro-democracy stance and the Umbrella Movement had not tarnished HKU’s name, urging the university to make a public statement detailing the reasons for firing him.

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, on the other hand, said the HKU Council was dominated by Beijing loyalists.

“Beijing now extends its reach to academic freedoms in Hong Kong,” said Wong, who was jailed for not complying with an injunction to clear the Mong Kok protest site in 2014.

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.

Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.