The University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) governing council reportedly cancelled a special meeting on Tuesday that was set to discuss accusations against the school’s head over his conduct.

Zhang Xiang, president and vice-chancellor of HKU, has denied what he called “extremely serious allegations.” He requested a postponement of the meeting via a legal representative on Monday, citing insufficient time for preparation having been given one day’s notice.

zhang xiang
Zhang Xiang. File photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

In an email sent to the HKU Council, Zhang’s lawyers also indicated that they will be present in future meetings concerning Zhang’s conduct, Ming Pao reported, having obtained a copy of the email.

In a statement issued in the early hours of Tuesday, Zhang accused “rumour-mongers” of leaking confidential HKU information, distorting facts and taking words out of context to direct attacks towards the school and himself. “I believe these accusations are organised and deliberate acts. As these allegations might involve unlawful acts and amount to serious defamation against me, I have decided to hire a lawyer and seek legal advice,” Zhang wrote in Chinese.

Zhang added that he “deeply regretted” that his email – which was supposedly received only by council members – was leaked to the media within an hour.

The HKU Council did not immediately respond to HKFP as to whether the meeting, originally scheduled for the afternoon of Tuesday, had been cancelled or postponed.

Whistle-blowers accusations

Tuesday’s meeting came after multiple HKU Council members reportedly received emails from whistle-blowers raising accusations against Zhang.

The vice-chancellor was alleged to have intervened in the hiring process of a medical dean and a vice-president, as well as mishandling donations from a mainland Chinese corporation, and inappropriately using school funds for renovation work, Ming Pao reported, citing unnamed council members.

In an email response to HKFP, an HKU spokesperson said that the university had followed procurement procedures in the hiring process of the two positions.

HKU University of Hong Kong
The University of Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The spokesperson also said that the donation in question originated from a mainland Chinese enterprise last year and the donation process adhered to both Hong Kong and mainland laws, rejecting any allegation of money laundering.

On the matters of school renovation work, HKU said that such work was carried out in 2021 in the Senior Common Room – a social venue for senior members of the university – and was in line with its tendering procedures.

HKFP has also reached out to Zhang’s office, and Priscilla Wong, the chairperson of the HKU Council, for comment.

‘Internal affair’

When asked about his opinions on the saga, Chief Executive John Lee said that he was aware of the allegations, but that it was a matter for HKU management. Lee, as the leader of Hong Kong, is the chancellor of the city’s public universities.

“What is important is that things should be handled in accordance with laid down procedures and any matter should be dealt with in a fair and impartial manner,” Lee told reporters ahead of the Tuesday Executive Council meeting.

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He added that university management should be in line with public expectations.

Zhang, a 59 year-old Chinese-American physicist, was appointed as the vice-chancellor of HKU in 2018, after his predecessor Peter Mathieson resigned prematurely after four years in office.

Since assuming the role, Zhang has faced controversies over the alleged suppression of academic freedom and nepotism, including when his ex-colleagues at UC Berkeley were appointed as vice-presidents of HKU in 2020.

HKU dropped four places from 31st to 35th in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings last Wednesday.

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Hans Tse is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in local politics, academia, and media transformation. He was previously a social science researcher, with writing published in the Social Movement Studies and Social Transformation of Chinese Societies journals. He holds an M.Phil in communication from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Before joining HKFP, He also worked as a freelance reporter for Initium between 2019 and 2021, where he covered the height - and aftermath - of the 2019 protests, as well as the sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020.