The top governing body of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) will handle complaints “seriously,” its chairperson has said, amid reports of alleged misconduct levelled against the school’s president.

University of Hong Kong HKU
The University of Hong Kong. Photo: Supplied.

Priscilla Wong, chair of the HKU council, issued a statement on Wednesday evening saying that council members had received anonymous emails containing allegations, and that a special meeting will be held to discuss the matter on Monday.

“The Council will adhere to university policy and procedures… to deal with all complaints in a fair, impartial, and serious manner,” Wong said in the Chinese-language statement.

While no names were mentioned in Wong’s statement, her comments came after an earlier statement by HKU president and vice-chancellor Zhang Xiang, in which he denied what he called “extremely serious allegations” made against him and said he had sought legal advice.

Local media reported earlier this week that whistle-blowers had accused Zhang of mishandling of a donation, intervening in the hiring process of senior positions at the university, and misappropriating funds.

Priscilla Wong
Priscilla Wong. File photo: GovHK.

Wong said all 25 council members – including Zhang, who is an ex-officio member of the body – had received anonymous emails last Wednesday. A special meeting to discuss the matter was called off last Friday.

“The accused may exercise their rights, including to seek legal advice,” Wong’s statement added.

Calls for open investigation

Wong’s statement also came after calls from university alumni and an undergraduate representative for an open and independent investigation into the accusations against Zhang.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, 10 members of a body that oversees the administration of HKU urged the university council to formally address media coverage of the allegations against Zhang.

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

The statement said that details of the accusations against Zhang were only made public by the media.

“This has created a strong impression of governance turmoil without any effective leadership,” the statement read, adding that the lack of clarity has damaged the university’s reputation.

The council was urged to lift confidentiality restrictions to make public the relevant documents related to the accusations against Zhang, as well as establish an independent committee to investigate into the matter through public hearings.

All signatories of the statement were members of the HKU Convocation, the school’s alumni council.

Casey Chik, an undergraduate representative of the council, also said he supported asking the council to lift confidentiality rules.

“It would be unfair to the President & Vice-Chancellor himself for letting the allegations be disseminated, and delaying the process would be further detrimental to the interests of the University. Only a fair, impartial and open investigation can bring the matter to light,” Chik said on social media on Tuesday.

Under the council’s code of practice, members are banned from disclosing any council information without the permission of it and its chair.

Legal advice sought

Zhang Xiang was alleged to have intervened in the hiring process of a medical dean and a vice-president, mishandled a donation from a mainland Chinese corporation, and misappropriated school funds for renovation work, Ming Pao reported on Monday, citing unnamed council members.

In response, 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.

“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 Xiang
Zhang Xiang. Photo: HKU.

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

The spokesperson 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.

Zhang’s office has not responded to a request for comment.

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

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

In response to the issue, Chief Executive John Lee said on Tuesday he believed HKU management could resolve the matter internally, adding that university management should align with public expectations.

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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.