Benny Tai Yiu-ting, sacked from his tenured position at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) on Tuesday by a despotic cabal also known as “The Council”, now has nowhere to run and nowhere to turn. His options are zero. 

It’s been a woeful and bitter week for him, for HKU, and for academic freedom in Hong Kong.

protest rally benny tai free speech
Benny Tai. Photo: HKFP.

The 56-year-old legal scholar has always said he was willing to pay the price for the pro-democracy civil disobedience movement he so actively fostered. And now he has–with additional jail time also hanging over his head as he awaits an appeal of his conviction on two public nuisance charges related to the Occupy Central campaign he co-founded. The outspoken professor has been effectively drawn, quartered and strung up for public viewing by central government authorities and their local stand-ins. 

Describing Tai as an “evil” influence who had “increased conflict in society and poisoned Hong Kong’s political atmosphere,” Beijing’s liaison office was quick to signal its full support for the HKU governing council’s decision. 

In many academic circles—and everywhere else where free thinking is still valued in Hong Kong—the reaction is likely to be quite different. Among these groups, there is also grave concern about Hong Kong’s poisoned political culture, but they blame the Chinese leadership rather than Tai for the repeatedly toxic injections. And now Beijing, using its actors on the HKU council, has likewise managed to debase academia with its political red line.   

Johannes Chan Man-mun Law Professor University of Hong Kong HKU
File photo: Elson Tong/HKFP.

It should be noted, however, that this is not the first time the council has acted with naked political intent. Five years ago, this same junta rejected the eminently qualified Johannes Chan Man-mun as HKU’s pro-vice-chancellor. 

Chan, then dean of the Faculty of Law, had been unanimously recommended for the position by a search committee but, after pro-China newspapers Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao published attacks on his pro-democracy views, the council, after much delay, voted 12-8 to block his appointment. Leading the council charge against Chan was a newly appointed member, the insuppressible Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, also known as “King Arthur” or “the Tsar” for his authoritarian style during his time as Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1996-2002) and the HKSAR’s Secretary for Education (2002-2007).

Soon after nixing Chan’s appointment, Li was named council chair, a position he still holds and—you can count on it—used to his fullest ability to sack Tai. 

HKU banner
Banner displayed at the University of Hong Kong’s Law Faculty. Photo: Stand News.

This time the council vote, reportedly 18-2, wasn’t even close, but let’s not pretend that it had anything to do with actual judgment and sentiment on the HKU campus and among alumni. The majority of council members are appointed either by the chancellor—who happens to be Chief Executive Carrie Lam—or by the council itself and have no other association with the university. Appointees include such reliable pro-establishment stalwarts as lawmaker Abraham Shek, representing the real estate and construction industry, and Sino Land’s Deputy Chairman Daryl Ng Win-kong. 

University president Zhang Xiang also sits on the council, but he chose not to cast a vote.
The real verdict on Tai came earlier this month when the HKU senate found no grounds for his dismissal and thus recommended that he be allowed to continue teaching at the university. Chairman Li – who also serves in this tangled web of conflicting interests and loyalties, on the Executive Council – the chief executive’s de facto cabinet—and his faithful council lieutenants chose to ignore completely this recommendation. 

Tai has already announced plans to appeal the council’s decision, but imagine how that’s going to go. According to the vicious circle of university governance protocol, all appeals of council decisions go to none other than the chancellor, Carrie Lam. Good luck with that!

occupy protests
Occupy protests in Admiralty. File Photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

From the day Tai launched “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” back in September of 2014, Beijing has placed a target on his back. Because of all the due-process, rule-of-law pretence that was required, it took a while to hit the target. But now they’ve got him—and he’s not the only one. 

Let’s not overlook that the day before Tai was sacked, Baptist University lecturer and lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun, who was also jailed for taking part in the Occupy campaign, was informed that his contract would not be renewed once it expires in August. 

The only question now: Who’s next?

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.