Hong Kong activists use newspaper petition to warn of academic threats

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Activists published a full-page petition in a Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong on Monday, warning of growing threats to academic freedom and the educational system amid fears of a broader Chinese clampdown on the former British colony.

The petition is the latest exchange in the battle for Hong Kong's political future. After student-led pro-democracy protests shut down key roads in Hong Kong for 79 days last year, activists have accused the Chinese Communist Party of trying to take a firmer line with educational institutions.

The petition cited personal attacks on prominent academics in the pro-Beijing media, public criticism of individuals, student bodies and academics by senior government officials, interference in the choice of teaching materials and growing perceptions of political bias and improper influence in the appointment of university officers and members of governing bodies.

A deputy director of China's main representative office in Hong Kong, the Liaison Office, said he had not heard of the petition so could not comment. "I'm not too sure about this," he told Reuters.

There was no immediate response from China's Foreign Ministry office in Hong Kong to an emailed request for comment.

The version of the petition published in Ming Pao on Monday was signed by more than 500 people. "Academic freedom and the autonomy of educational institutions are fundamental rights guaranteed to Hong Kong," it said. "They are a mainstay of our free, just and stable society."

One of the signatories, Hong Kong human rights lawyer Michael Vidler, said it was important for people to put their names to the issue. "There have been marked attacks on academic independence here in Hong Kong," said Vidler, who has represented Joshua Wong, one of the main student leaders of last year's protests.