Hong Kong university students and staff hold silent march to defend academic freedom

Staff and students of the University of Hong Kong stage a silent protest against the university's governing council inside their campus in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2015.
Staff and students of the University of Hong Kong stage a silent protest against the university's governing council inside their campus in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (Reuters) - About 1,000 students and staff at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) held a silent protest on Tuesday (Oct 6) against what they say is Beijing's interference in academic freedom.

The rally came a week after a prominent law professor 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 and were joined by pro-democracy activists including Mr Benny Tai, one of the leaders of the protests in the former British colony last year.

"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," Professor Timothy O'Leary, head of the School of Humanities and organiser of the protest, was reported as telling the media.

For more than a century, HKU, one of Asia's top universities, has served as a bastion of liberal education in the city that returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, producing many of its top bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers.

Hong Kong's Constitution guarantees the financial enclave a high degree of autonomy denied in mainland China by its Communist leaders, including academic freedom, broad individual rights and an independent judiciary.

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

Some activists believe 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 sometimes violent 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 in its the next vote in 2017 but they kindled extensive debate about the mainland's control over the city.

Another protest is planned for Friday.