The fiasco of the appointment of two new vice presidents at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), announced on Tuesday demonstrates the lack of a credible communications strategy at HKU.

The episode may also be viewed as the outcome of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) continuing wartime footing in Hong Kong. The CCP appears neither to trust the people of Hong Kong, nor to be willing to share with Hongkongers critical party policy on the governance of Hong Kong.

HKU Lennon Wall
A photo of HKU’s Lennon Wall taken on September 28, 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Had there been a communications strategy, the leadership of HKU (President Zhang Xiang and Council Chair Arthur Li) would have been ready to discuss the backgrounds of the two new vice presidents. The press and public have asked legitimate questions.

Rather the leadership of HKU appear to have been shocked by questions about the party membership of Professor Max Shen, falling back on anonymous background briefings and leaked arguments that appeared in the press. 

Even with Beijing’s new emphasis on exercising comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong, articulated since November 2019, and CE Carrie Lam ceding political leadership in Hong Kong to a new party secretary, Luo Huining, the party authority structure here is incomplete.

As of today, the Education Bureau and the UGC guide and supervise the universities. Audit, Legco, the ICAC, and the media hold the universities to account. Evidently, the CCP distrusts these institutions, part of a general distrust of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is part of China, yet the answers given to questions about Professor Shen’s relationship to the CCP do not reflect this fact. HKU prides itself as an equal opportunity employer, not discriminating based on gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, etc.

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

Fine. To include political affiliation among these disregarded attributes is fundamentally mistaken, however, in the context of Hong Kong. We are not in California. The CCP provides an alternative mechanism of communication, control and accountability leading directly to the central party in Beijing.

If HKU recruits outstanding academics who are party members to its leadership group, the university should do it openly. There are many advantages to recruiting the academically talented who are also party members. First, they bring new networks on the mainland, providing new opportunities.

Second, party members with access to party thinking, can provide insights into party policy and explain how to best navigate it. Hong Kong desperately needs these skills, rather than as now, being shut out of critical decision-making processes.

Third, and perhaps more cynically, party members can help us to understand contradictions within the party (an organisation of over 90 million) and how we can best use them to develop the institutions that the community values. All of this requires an ‘eyes wide open’ approach to party membership, rather than furtive denials and the ‘head in the sand’ approach evident at HKU.

University leadership does itself and the institution great disservice by claiming as it did on 27 October that the altered Tsinghua University websites which for years listed Professor Shen as a party committee member — and then were suddenly deleted — were the work of a rogue webmaster.

We should understand that the CCP tightly controls what information the party reveals on its websites. Webmasters have no independent agency. Generally, department heads and deans, especially of elite universities, are all party members.

China flag CCP
Photo: Pxhere.

Without more information, it is not credible for the university to claim that Professor Shen was a party committee member (and therefore a party member) without his knowledge. The CCP Central Committee would find it outrageous that individuals were party committee members in name only, evidence of an intolerable institutional decay in one of China’s most elite universities.

Does the CCP also bear some responsibility? The party’s culture of secrecy, perhaps appropriate in wartime, is undermining the party’s credibility in Hong Kong. Hong Kong people are Chinese citizens and deserve more information, for example, about the party’s policies on Hong Kong.

The CCP should publish the October 2019 Central Committee decision on Hong Kong. The party’s policy of ‘duiwai bukaifang’ (not open to outsiders) and “if you need to know, you know; if you don’t  know, you don’t need to know” is not relevant in today’s Hong Kong.

As citizens we need to know, and we deserve to know. The CCP’s policy of insisting that party members not reveal their membership to outsiders is also harming the credibility of the institution in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s universities need the best talent in the world. Much of the best talent can be found on the mainland. The CCP’s policy of recruiting party members from among the country’s best and brightest means that the most talented are mostly party members.

Hong Kong must recognise and accept this and take the opportunities that better networks and insights provide, to improve our city. Only this way will we thrive. The CCP must also be more transparent and realise that the people of Hong Kong are not the enemy.

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John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.