The University of Hong Kong (HKU) has seen numerous controversies in recent months, ranging from the firing of Umbrella Movement leader and law professor Benny Tai to the controversial appointment of two mainland Chinese scholars as vice-presidents.

Student union chair Edy Jeh, who won a seat on HKU’s governing Council as an undergraduate representative earlier this month, fears several planned changes may erode academic freedom at Hong Kong’s oldest university.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Jeh and legal scholar Eric Cheung remain the only two pro-democracy representatives among 24 Council members.

Despite the government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in which the worst battlegrounds were campuses, universities are still under fire. Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are at stake, particularly after the enactment of the national security law which stated that the government should promote national security in schools and universities.

The pro-democracy Lennon Wall message board – which was situated on the HKU campus since the beginning of the 2019 protests – was removed last month.

Jeh said she was worried that the student union building – managed by the student body – may also be taken back by the university at any time.

In September last year, HKU issued a notice stating that it will promote civility on campus and adopt a zero-tolerance approach to hate speech.

During the height of the pro-democracy protests last year, HKU like other universities was covered in graffiti showing support for the movement. Some of these messages included expletives aimed at the police force and disclosed their personal details – particularly officers who had graduated from the university.

Edy Jeh. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Under the new guidelines, comments infringing the privacy of any individual, abusive and offensive expressions directed at a person or group, and defamatory remarks would be regarded as transgressing basic notions of civility.

Jeh expressed fears the new rules may amount to censorship and erode freedom of speech. She cited the example of a parody video produced by CampusTV which was deemed to be “bullying and hate speech” and was soon removed.

“What is the definition of hate speech? Who gets to decide what qualifies as hate speech?” she asked in an interview with HKFP, adding that the student union has asked for clarification.

Other looming changes are less visible but equally significant. Jeh described planned changes to a committee which selects deans, suggested by HKU president Zhang Xiang, as an attempt to centralise power on him. The suggested change would give the university president power to make a final decision on candidates. The term of each dean would be altered to a maximum of five years followed by another extension of no more than five years.

“Under the current system, Zhang can rarely interfere with faculty affairs. The deans are usually in charge of their respective faculties,” Jeh said.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The controversial appointment of two mainland vice-presidents, may also impact the governance of the university.

One of them – Gong Peng – will be in charge of academic development, meaning he will oversee all matters related to teaching staff including employment, promotion, tenures and dismissal.

Max Shen Zuojun – the second newly appointed vice-president – will be responsible for research-related matters.

Jeh fears that together with the president’s personal preference for research, resources may be disproportionately focused on postgraduate research rather than on undergraduate studies which affect the majority of students.

Jeh said the inherent problem with HKU’s governance was structural and systemic but she was pessimistic about changes actually taking place.

For one, Hong Kong chief executives will by law assume the role of university chancellors. The chancellor can appoint a council chairperson who has the power to elect Council members.

“There are more lay [Council] members than members from the school. The composition itself is normal and may work in universities overseas,” she said, but the trustee model does not work in Hong Kong.

“The problem is these appointments are politically affiliated – be it Carrie Lam or Arthur Li who appointed them,” Jeh said. Trustees were meant to use their professional knowledge to decide the future of the university. “Now it has become a role to execute a political mission.”

She said the role of chancellor should be an honorary one and the appointment of a Council chair should be vested within the Council. Ideally, the university should draft a list of trustworthy candidates for the Council to appoint.

However any amendments to the university’s ordinance have become increasingly difficult as they must be approved by the city’s legislature – which has no effective opposition after four democrats were removed by Beijing and the rest resigned en masse.

“Academic freedom is based on institutional autonomy. It will be hard to maintain academic freedom when institutional autonomy is collapsing,” Jeh said.

She said academic staff are growing increasingly fearful, especially after the enactment of the national security law and the earlier ejection of Benny Tai. Some teaching staff have even consulted the student union about the situation.

“Teaching staff should not be punished for their political participation,” the student union chair said. She said Tai’s eviction had implications for students and other teachers. “Students and teachers may also be removed purely for their political participation or prosecution.”

Benny Tai in a demonstration held on January 1, 2019. Photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

Last year, a committee of the HKU Senate ruled there was not sufficient reason to dismiss Tai. But the HKU Council overruled the Senate’s decision, citing academic reasons, voting 18 to 2 in favour of removing him.

“Is the Council serving as a court? It is procedurally unjust,” Jeh said.

She said the Senate was supposed to be the highest academic body to make decisions related to teaching, whilst most Council members were not involved in teaching.

Academic freedom allows teaching staff to speak their mind and creates an environment for outstanding scholars, Jeh said. “If self-censorship exists, teaching quality will be affected.” She cited a politics professor who said they feared eavesdropping or video recording of their lectures and hence would prefer face-to-face teaching.

“If the senior management wish to lessen teaching staff worries, they should take extra steps,” she said.

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

Last week, pro-Bejing newspapers Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao slammed a social science professor at another university for allegedly disseminating pro-independence messages, after she claimed at a webinar that “Hong Kong belongs to the world.” She denied any such intent.

Last month, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said the education chief would meet university presidents to discuss national security education on campus. Law enforcement may step in if the universities cannot fulfil these requirements mandated in the Beijing-imposed law, she said.

Jeh said the Education Bureau should have no power in university management. This was why a non-statutory advisory committee – the University Grants Committee – had been founded to advise the government on university financing.

During her term on the Council, Jeh wants to prevent student representatives from being removed from other university committees. She believes Zhang’s approach is to bar students from making decisions on university governance.

Zhang Xiang. Photo: HKU screenshot.

As student union chair, she wants to enhance students’ understanding of these issues. “Students are highly concerned about affairs of the school but they may lack the context or knowledge to comprehend the actual impact of these incidents.”

Even so, a petition against the appointment of the two vice-presidents gathered over 4,000 signatures and Jeh believe that the effort to nurture student awareness at HKU is effective.

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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.