1,000 in silent HK uni protest to defend academic freedom

HONG KONG • More than 1,000 students and staff at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) have held a silent protest against what they say is Beijing's interference in academic freedom.

The rally yesterday came a week after prominent law professor Johannes Chan was barred from taking up a senior post at the university, in what some viewed as Beijing tightening its grip a year after student-led protests rocked the Chinese-ruled city.

Dressed in black or wearing academic gowns, the protesters marched through their campus. They were joined by pro-democracy activists, including Mr Benny Tai, one of the leaders of the protests last year and a close colleague of Prof Chan.

Professor Timothy O'Leary, head of the School of Humanities and organiser of the protest, told reporters: "We march in silence to demonstrate to ourselves and the city of Hong Kong what a university would be like if its academic staff and students are silent."

For more than a century, HKU, one of Asia's top universities, has been a bastion of liberal education, producing many of the city's top bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers.

Hong Kong's constitution guarantees a high degree of autonomy denied in mainland China, including academic freedom and an independent judiciary.

But Beijing supporters on the university's governing council thwarted the appointment of Prof Chan, former HKU law school dean and a prominent human rights advocate, as a university pro-vice-chancellor in a vote last month.

HKU student union leader Billy Fung said: "Students are concerned about the importance of our institutional autonomy and the ridiculous decision made by the council."

Some activists believe Prof Chan's appointment was blocked as part of a broader move to curb academic freedom at the university, whose students played a large role in the pro-democracy protests last year.

The weeks of protests failed to persuade Beijing to lift a restriction on who can stand for election as Hong Kong's leader, but they kindled extensive debate about the mainland's control over the city.

Another protest is planned for Friday.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline '1,000 in silent HK uni protest to defend academic freedom'. Print Edition | Subscribe