More than 1,000 join protest at Hong Kong University for academic freedom

Hong Kong University students, faculty members, staff and alumni gather on their campus to protest against what they perceive to be interference in the university's autonomy, in Hong Kong, China.
Hong Kong University students, faculty members, staff and alumni gather on their campus to protest against what they perceive to be interference in the university's autonomy, in Hong Kong, China.PHOTO: EPA

HONG KONG (AFP) - More than a thousand students, alumni and teachers joined a protest at Hong Kong University (HKU) on Friday (Oct 9) evening as anger mounts over political interference in the city's education system.

Protests have gathered pace since the appointment of a liberal law scholar to a senior administrative post at HKU was rejected last week.

The university's council, which has a number of members seen as pro-Beijing, voted against Mr Johannes Chan becoming pro-vice chancellor.

Some members of the council, HKU's top decision-making body, are appointed by the city's unpopular leader Leung Chun Ying.

Mr Chan was a close colleague of pro-democracy leader Benny Tai, also an academic at HKU, and who helped orchestrate last year's mass pro-democracy protests that brought parts of the semi-autonomous Chinese city to a standstill.

Protesters on Friday were dressed in black and gathered around a stage set up outside the university library.

Some were wearing T-shirts with the Martin Luther King quote: "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

"We should ask whether the government is trying so hard to destroy Hong Kong's tertiary education that it doesn't care about the consequences," education lawmaker Ip Kin Yuen told reporters.

"It's a threat to Hong Kong as a whole."

Student Althea Suen, 19, said the rally was to show anger over the council's decision.

"In this case there was clearly political interference," she told AFP.

"The people there (on the council) have the majority. But we students are watching them."

Wednesday saw 2,000 students, professors and alumni gather at the HKU campus for a silent march.

On Thursday, academic staff from across the city's universities and higher education institutions launched a new group - the Scholars' Alliance for Academic Freedom (SAAF).

They said it would "pay close attention" to academic freedoms in Hong Kong and examine any violations.

"Academic freedom can only exist through perpetual awareness, insistence and collective work," it said in a statement.

"We are aware of the storm and the darkness that awaits us; we have no choice but to face it head on and walk against the wind."

Anger was stoked further on Friday after reports in local media that Mr Leung had met HKU vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson in August and September, ahead of the decisive council meeting.

Once a British colony, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 under a deal which guaranteed the retention of its civil liberties and capitalist lifestyle for 50 years.

But teachers report increasing self-censorship over political issues for fear of losing jobs.

In 2012, tens of thousands marched against "national education", a government proposal to introduce Beijing-centric patriotic teaching into schools. The plan was dropped.