Hong Kong University appoints Beijing-backed academic despite objections

Students gather to call for academic freedom at Hong Kong University on Oct 9 fears grow that Beijing is interfering in the city's education.
Students gather to call for academic freedom at Hong Kong University on Oct 9 fears grow that Beijing is interfering in the city's education.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (Reuters) - One of Hong Kong's top universities has appointed a pro-Beijing professor as its chairman despite widespread objections and fears of diminishing academic freedom in the Chinese-ruled city.

Mr Arthur Li, a former Hong Kong education minister, was appointed chairman of the governing council of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), one of Asia's top universities, the city government said in an email on Thursday.

Mr Li's appointment comes three months after a prominent law professor was barred from taking up a top post at the university, which has produced many of Hong Kong's top politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers.

The former British colony has a high degree of autonomy denied in mainland China by its Communist leaders, including academic freedom, broad individual rights and an independent judiciary.

But a restriction on who can stand in elections for the city's leader, which Hong Kong's pro-Beijing government has declined to drop despite protests, has exacerbated concern about a slowly tightening mainland grip over the city.

The rejection for another top post of former HKU law school dean, Mr Johannes Chan, a prominent human rights advocate who came recommended by a university search committee, raised fears about the loss of academic freedom at the university which has long been a bastion of liberal education.

Many university students and some of its staff played a big role in the 79 days of pro-democracy protests last year that saw thousands of people take to the streets of the financial centre, posing a significant challenge to the central government in Beijing.

Hong Kong's Secretary for Education Eddie Ng welcomed Mr Li's appointment, saying HKU would go from strength to strength with Mr Li at the helm, although Mr Timothy O'Leary, a member of HKU's Council, said in a statement that Mr Li was a very poor choice as chairman.

"I believe it is more important now than ever to remain vigilant in safeguarding HKU's core values," said Mr O'Leary, who teaches Philosophy at the university.

The Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union expressed anger and regret over the decision in an e-mail statement and demanded that the city's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, withdraw Mr Li's appointment.

The HKU Alumni Group wrote on its Facebook page that Mr Li's appointment was not in the best interests of the university and was provocative.

"This is exacerbating the situation seen in the past half year when what is needed is calm and tranquility. The chief executive should find a candidate acceptable to all parties,"the group said.