Two professors from a mainland Chinese university – one of whom was previously listed as a Communist Party member – were appointed to senior roles at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) on Tuesday despite objections from the student union and critics who see a threat to academic freedom.

Max Shen Zuojun and Gong Peng were appointed as vice-presidents of research and of academic development, respectively, by the governing council of Hong Kong’s oldest and most prestigious university.

Max Shen Zuojun (left) and Gong Peng (right). Photos: Internet.

Prior to the council’s meeting, Lee Tsz-Shing, student representative on the council, said he would move to delay the decision on the appointments and demanded more due diligence on Shen’s political background.

The president of the university’s student union, Edy Jeh, also criticised the appointments, RTHK reported: “We don’t accept anyone with political affiliations to be appointed as a vice president of the university,” she said on Sunday. “It’s actually a declaration that they are letting the government and the Chinese Communist Party take control of the university.”

The council also voted to change its procedures for selecting faculty members, with four elected faculty and student representatives on the selection committee to be replaced by student and faculty representatives directly appointed by the vice-chancellor.

Shen and Gong are expected to start their five-year terms of office by next January at the earliest. Shen was previously dean of the industrial engineering faculty at China’s Tsinghua University, while Gong was dean at the science faculty. Both held teaching positions at the University of California, Berkeley, where HKU’s vice-chancellor Zhang Xiang also taught before his current appointment.

Party committee member?

The website of Tsinghua University’s industrial engineering faculty previously listed Shen as a Communist Party committee member. Citizen News reported that he was also named in two party committee appointment notices in 2014 and 2017.

The University of Hong Kong’s Main Building. File Photo: HKU.

The news outlet cited an HKU source as saying Shen had clearly denied being a party member to the school’s council. The source said Shen spent most of his time at UC Berkeley and the party title at Tsinghua had been bestowed without his knowledge.

Tsinghua University removed Shen’s party committee title from its website shortly after media enquiries were made. The information remains viewable on an archived version of the site.

The appointees’ mainland background and Shen’s former party title raised questions about whether Hong Kong’s oldest university would be able to maintain its academic freedom, according to critics of the appointments. Mainland Chinese officials and state media have repeatedly accused local universities of being a driving force in last year’s pro-democracy protests and the city’s independence movement.

The university council sacked tenured associate professor of law Benny Tai in July, after he was convicted over his role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. In 2016, after pro-government media criticised the views of the then-dean of HKU’s faculty of law Johannes Chan, the university council voted against his appointment as pro-vice-chancellor, even though he had received a unanimous recommendation for the position.

Photo: Citizen News.

HKU Council Chairman Arthur Li said in a press statement on Tuesday night that the appointments were a result of a global search for talent and Shen confirmed he was not a Communist Party member: “The issues of concern against the two professors have been satisfactorily clarified and that all allegations are found to be unsubstantiated.”

In a response to the allegations, Shen said in a statement that he had been working full-time at UC Berkeley from 2004 and his Tsinghua appointment was only “honorary” with approval from Berkeley: “I am not a member of the Chinese Communist Party and I am also not in the party committee as claimed by the reports. It was an oversight by the webmaster of the respective website,” he said.

Deans at UC Berkeley

According to his faculty profile, Shen was chancellor’s professor at UC Berkeley, department chair at the Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, and professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, as well as co-director at co-director at the Tsinghua-Berkeley Institute. He specialises in logistics systems and supply chain design and management.

Shen originally graduated from China’s Shandong University before obtaining his master’s and PhD at Northwestern University in the US.

Gong is professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, with research interests in remote sensing and GIS. He initially graduated with a geography degree from Nanjing University, and obtained a PhD at the Geography University of Waterloo in Canada.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In an open letter to the university, the HKU Alumni concern group questioned whether the appointments signalled nepotism, as both vice-chancellor Zhang Xiang and Shen had attended Nanjing University, while all three had worked at UC Berkeley. The group said the university’s development may be hampered if several members of its management share a similar trajectory.

The university council also discussed modifying the composition of faculty selection committees. Four indirectly elected faculty and student representatives on an eight-person selection committee, would be replaced by four faculty and student representatives directly appointed by the university’s vice-chancellor. The vice-chancellor would also directly appoint the committee’s chair, and the five-year appointment period would become a maximum of five years.

A student union representative said at a press briefing prior to the council meeting today that the council should make public its selection criteria. They requested that Shen make public declaration about his political affiliation.

The representative also criticised changes to the selection committee composition for allowing Zhang to centralise his power, so “he can now have more and more space to do whatever he wants.”

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.