Patten says academic freedoms under threat, angering HK

The govt is also furious with former governor for saying it is acting on Beijing's orders

HONG KONG • Hong Kong has hit back at former colonial governor Chris Patten after he said academic freedoms in the city were under threat, as tensions with London rise over Beijing's growing influence.

In an article published earlier this week, Mr Patten said "the autonomy of universities and free speech itself" were at risk in Hong Kong due to interference from the Chinese authorities.

"The rationale seems to be that, because students strongly supported the pro-democracy protests in 2014, the universities where they study should be brought to heel," said Mr Patten in an article for global opinion site Project Syndicate, referring to huge street rallies that brought parts of the city to a standstill for more than two months. "The city's government blunders away, stirring up trouble, clearly on the orders of the government in Beijing," he added.

Mr Patten's comments come after a liberal scholar was rejected for a senior post at Hong Kong University, prompting protests from staff and students, and a pro-Beijing stalwart was appointed its council chairman. He also said universities should "control their own academic governance". Hong Kong's unpopular leader Leung Chun Ying is chancellor of all the universities in the city, a longstanding tradition.

Hong Kong's Education Bureau issued a statement late on Wednesday chastising Mr Patten for "acting in complete ignorance of the facts". It said he could have revised legislation over who should head universities during his five-year tenure as the city's last governor, before the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.

PATTEN'S ACCUSATION

The city's government blunders away, stirring up trouble, clearly on the orders of the government in Beijing.

MR CHRIS PATTEN, on the alleged move to restrict academic freedoms.

"The current practice of the Chief Executive being the chancellor of the government-funded universities precisely stems from the then Governor Patten's decision," the statement said. It defended Hong Kong's academic freedoms, calling them "an important social value" safeguarded by law.

The bureau also rebuked Mr Patten for saying the local government was acting on Beijing's orders.

"Such a claim is totally groundless and a sheer fabrication," it said.

Tensions in the city have heightened since the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers known for publishing titles critical of Beijing.

Four are now under official criminal probe in China and the fifth, Lee Bo, a British passport holder, says he is "assisting" the authorities there. Lee's case sparked the most outrage as he is the only bookseller to have disappeared from Hong Kong. The others were last seen in Thailand and mainland China.

Mr Patten attacked Beijing for "abducting a British citizen on the city's streets". The booksellers case has sparked international concern, with Britain saying earlier this month that Lee's disappearance was a "serious breach" of the agreement signed with Beijing before the handover, which protects Hong Kong's way of life for 50 years.

Young protesters are increasingly frustrated that they are not being heard by the authorities. Street battles with police earlier this month left more than 100 people injured.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2016, with the headline 'Patten says academic freedoms under threat, angering HK'. Print Edition | Subscribe