Taiwanese legislators, academics and others have called for the head of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) to be expelled from Taiwan’s prestigious national academy, after the university cut ties with its student union last Friday.

HKU’s Zhang Xiang was “unfit” to be a member of the Academia Sinica, a group organised by rights platform “Taiwan stands with Hong Kong” said on Thursday, accusing him of helping to suppress academic freedom and democratic values in Hong Kong.

HKU Zhang Xiao Taiwan
Professors Wan-yao Chou and Rwei-Wen Wu, Legislators Fan Yun and Su Chiao-hui and Min-yen Chiang. Photo: HKFP.

“HongKongers are at the frontline of democracy,” said Su Chiao-hui, a legislator from President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). “If we don’t have the means to protect them, what will the result be?”

She said an academic’s basic principles should be to protect democracy, freedom and human rights, whether in Hong Kong’s universities or at Taiwan’s most prestigious academic organisation.

The group also includes Professor Rwei-ren Wu of Academia Sinica; Professor Wan-yao Chou of National Taiwan University; another DPP legislator Fan Yun; the National Students Union of Taiwan Higher Education Committee chairman,Yan-cheng Huang; and Chiang Min-yen, a former member of HKU’s student union.

Last Friday, HKU management announced it would cease accepting membership fees on behalf of the student union and “enforce management rights” on its offices and campus facilities, saying the body had become “increasingly politicised.” The union expressed “deepest regret” at a move which it said severely undermines the interests of students.

HKUSU University of Hong Kong student union
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Prior to the split, the union had lambasted Zhang over plans to implement national security education at the university, in what it saw as the latest blow to academic freedom under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

The law, imposed in response to months of pro-democracy protests and unrest in the city, has been criticised by international rights groups and foreign governments as impinging on fundamental freedoms and human rights.

‘Actively supporting’ CCP

Zhang’s support for the security law posed a threat to Taiwan’s own national security, according to Rwei-ren Wu, an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Taiwan History.

“As an academician, [Zhang] is holding the highest academic position in Taiwan and yet he’s a devout supporter of the People’s Republic of China,” he told HKFP.

Taiwan Hong Kong HKU
“Shame on political oppression. Revoke Zhang Xiang’s academic credentials.” Photo: HKFP.

Beijing sees Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy, as a renegade province and repeatedly vows to claim the island, by force if necessary. The majority of Taiwan’s population, however, does not support “unification” with mainland China, opinion surveys show.

Wu added that Zhang had breached his duty as an academic. “We say that scholars belong to the world… as a citizen of the world, you have the obligation to protect the universal values of human beings, such as freedom.”

Taiwan Hong Kong
Photo: Screenshot via Taiwan Stands with Hong Kong.

“And yet he’s doing the exact opposite thing. In his capacity of Vice-Chancellor at the University of Hong Kong, he has been trying to suppress academic freedom and its autonomy… and actively support China’s oppression of Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom in general,” he said.

A general meeting of Academia Sinica members will be held in early July.

Zhang was elected to Academia Sinica’s mathematics and physical sciences division in 2012. Members of the academy are elected by their peers and any changes to its regulations are decided by a meeting of all its members.

‘Chilling effect’

On Wednesday, six HKU alumni and former members of its student union, including exiled activist Sunny Cheung, signed an open letter to the head of Academia Sinica calling for Zhang to be stripped of his role as an academician.

“As the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, Zhang Xiang is duty-bound to help its students… Not only did he fail to do so, but he joined the ranks of the perpetrators,” the letter read, saying the university’s actions create a “chilling effect” and are “destroying the university as a bastion of free thought.”

Zhang Xiang
Zhang Xiang. Photo: HKU screenshot.

In response, the academy told CitizenNews that it “firmly believe in freedom and democracy” and would make a decision on Zhang’s position “according to democratic processes”

Zhang, who was born and received his undergraduate education in mainland China, became the head of HKU in mid-2018. He angered students during the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests after he criticised the storming of the city’s legislature.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.