Hong Kong’s legislature has passed a controversial bill set to drastically reduce the influence of staff and academics in the running of one of the city’s top universities.

The bill, passed on Wednesday, is expected to see the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s (CUHK) governing council downsized from 55 seats to 34, with a proposed 23 external members and 11 internal members, for the purpose of “monitoring the effectiveness of CUHK in achieving its goals and operation targets.”

Students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The number of alumni seats would be reduced from three to one, while the number of lawmaker seats would remain at three. There are currently 28 external members and 27 internal ones on the council.

Patriots’ council

Speaking at the Legislative Council’s (LegCo) third reading of the bill on Wednesday, Bill Tang, one of the three lawmakers on the university’s council who initiated the bill, called CUHK a “very important cradle for nurturing love for our country.”

He recalled intense clashes between protesters and police at the university at the height of the 2019 anti-extradition bill unrest, and said he was disheartened that CUHK students had taken part in the “riot.”

CUHK Chinese University riot November 2019
Protest scenes from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in November, 2019. Photo: Supplied.

The CUHK campus became a flashpoint during the months-long unrest, sparked that June by a since-axed extradition bill.

Protests escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.”

Lawmaker Edward Lau of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the city’s largest pro-establishment party, was also on the CUHK council.

Edward Lau Kwok-fun
Edward Lau Kwok-fun. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

He said on Wednesday that a private members’ bill was the “most expeditious way” to restructure the council, citing a controversial rebranding effort last year and the 2019 clashes as reasons for passing it.

More than 1,500 people signed a petition to oppose the bill earlier this July. CUHK council member Kelvin Yeung, one of the initiators of the petition, said the bill would undermine the university’s autonomy and academic freedom – facets of institutional governance enshrined in the Basic Law.

Institutional autonomy

Most of the legislature, meanwhile, supported the bill, with several echoing patriotic sentiments. Peter Koon cited director of China’s liaison office in Hong Kong Zheng Yanxiong, who said on Tuesday there were “objective standards as to what is a patriot,” and that council members, including student representatives, should be held to those standards.

Koon had previously argued that while students should be allowed to participate in discussions, they should not be allowed into the council.

Doreen Kong
Lawmaker Doreen Kong speaks to reporters after the Policy Address on Oct 25, 2023. File photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Legislator and solicitor Doreen Kong, however, said discussions surrounding the bill had become too politicised. “We need to cherish the next generation and focus on nurturing students, rather than bring politics into the campus,” she said.

Lawmakers also said that the restructuring of the council would not affect CUHK’s institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

Priscilla Leung, who chairs the legislature’s bills committee, said CUHK was the only government-funded institution that had not passed school council reforms to keep internal members in check, and that it had “all along enjoyed a high level of credibility and institutional autonomy.”

rocky tuan cuhk chinese university november 12
Rocky Tuan negotiates with police at CUHK. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

She emphasised the need to improve governance, accountability and transparency, also citing the failed rebranding exercise and the campus clashes.

Dominic Lee of the New People’s Party said terms like academic freedom and institutional autonomy “continue to be abused,” and that academic freedom was not absolute.

Those remarks come less than a week after Rowena He, a CUHK scholar specialising in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, had her employment with the university terminated immediately after the Hong Kong government rejected her work visa.

Rowena He, an associate professor at CUHK, is specialising in the 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown. Photo: CUHK.
Rowena He, a now-former associate professor at CUHK who specialised in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Photo: CUHK.

The restructuring of CUHK’s council has been in the pipeline for two decades, Leung and other lawmakers said, citing a 2002 blueprint on the development of higher education in Hong Kong called the Sutherland Report, as well as a 2016 bill on which the new bill was modelled.

According to a 2013 LegCo paper, the Sutherland Report does not specifically require universities to downsize their governing councils, though it does identify a “shift to smaller governing bodies designed to handle more important decisions” as a good practice in university governance overseas.

Was it necessary to go ‘all out’?

The bill is also expected to impose a new system whereby the vice-chancellor must be voted into office by no fewer than three quarters of the council’s members. Current Vice-Chancellor Rocky Tuan has been the target of criticism by supporters of the bill.

Speaking to reporters at LegCo on Wednesday evening, Tommy Cheung of the pro-business Liberal Party – the third lawmaker on the CUHK council – said he could not provide an answer about the future work of the council when asked whether Tuan’s removal would be up for discussion. He added that the council’s chairman, John Chai, would spearhead the transition to the new council.

Legislator Gary Zhang of New Prospect for Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.
Legislator Gary Zhang of New Prospect for Hong Kong. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Gary Zhang, one of the lawmakers who abstained from voting, said he did not have much of an opinion regarding the size of the council. But he said he did not approve of how the legislature had handled the “divisions” over the matter, saying the bill was passed while the council had yet to come to a consensus.

Zhang abstained from voting, along with Tik Chi-yuen of centrist party Third Side and Heung Yee Kuk chairman Kenneth Lau.

“There were enough votes to pass the bill, but was it necessary to go all out just because we had the right?” Zhang asked, adding that it should have been the legislature’s “responsibility” to hold a public hearing.

Support HKFP  |  Policies & Ethics  |  Error/typo?  |  Contact Us  |  Newsletter  | Transparency & Annual Report | Apps

Help safeguard press freedom & keep HKFP free for all readers by supporting our team

contribute to hkfp methods
hkfp flask store
YouTube video

Support press freedom & help us surpass 1,000 monthly Patrons: 100% independent, governed by an ethics code & not-for-profit.

Success! You're on the list.

James Lee is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in culture and social issues. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he witnessed the institution’s transformation over the course of the 2019 extradition bill protests and after the passing of the Beijing-imposed security law.

Since joining HKFP in 2023, he has covered local politics, the city’s housing crisis, as well as landmark court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial. He was previously a reporter at The Standard where he interviewed pro-establishment heavyweights and extensively covered the Covid-19 pandemic and Hong Kong’s political overhauls under the national security law.