No, not a win for academic autonomy after all. A month ago after the last meeting of the University of Hong Kong’s governing council, there was cause to think the year-long campaign targeting Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun might end the same way another big “patriotic” campaign ended 15 years ago. The case then was against HKU pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu who survived a similar fusillade from pro-Beijing forces after Hong Kong’s academic community rallied in his defense. But that case was long ago, in 1999-2000, soon after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule.
Beijing’s influence is stronger now, it’s anti-democracy arguments bolder and more confident. The student-led Occupy Central movement for universal suffrage elections may have awakened greater numbers to that cause, but it has also produced a more forceful counter-campaign.
The academic community rallied to Prof. Chan’s defense, much as it did for Robert Chung. Most striking this time: all 10 of HKU’s academic deans issued a statement against outside political interference in academic life. And the alumni called an unprecedented extraordinary meeting that garnered a total of 9,000+ votes in support of Chan’s candidacy for a senior management post at the university. The result of that September 1 meeting was, for Prof. Chan, 80 percent of the votes cast either in person or by proxy. All to no avail.
After procrastinating for months, the HKU council voted, 12 to 8, against approving Professor Chan for the post of pro-vice chancellor responsible for academic staffing and research. The September 29 meeting was closed to the public, and all members were bound to secrecy — except for the one student representative who was so angry that he refused to be bound and came out afterward to explain what had happened.
Votes for Chan came from internal, university members, who are in the minority on the council. The majority, external and government appointed council members, voted against Chan, minus council chairman, Edward Leong Che-hung. He did not vote. The student representative, Billy Fung Jing-en, is current head of the HKU students’ union.
The original specific charge against Prof. Chan, who served for over a decade as dean of HKU’s law school, was that he did not identify the source of some funds turned over to the university by law school professor, Benny Tai Yiu-ting. The funds were from anonymous contributions to his Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign.
They became public knowledge a year ago after the relevant e-mail accounts were hacked by persons unknown. The police have so far neglected to pursue this aspect of the case despite a local law that criminalizes hacking for malicious purposes.
The information was leaked to the pro-Beijing press here and used as the basis of a vitriolic media campaign against Chan once it became known that he was in line for one of HKU’s top managerial posts. Among the allegations of the media campaign was that the anonymous funds actually came from “foreign forces” who were by inference responsible for Benny Tai’s Occupy Central movement.
According to Billy Fung’s account, however, the discussion by council members prior to their vote did not touch on the funds issue; perhaps because it was a minor lapse, not even clearly defined by university oversight rules and regulations. But council members also apparently did not dwell on their “real” political reasons either, no doubt because that would have been to acknowledge the presence of political pressure, a point not openly acknowledged by council members.
Instead, they focused on Chan’s academic qualifications, about which they seem not to have been very well briefed. One point was Chan’s lack of a Ph.D. Degree, which is not a prerequisite for the law faculty. Someone allegedly joked that being a “nice guy” was enough in the law school. But Chan was being considered for an all-university post so his legal credentials would not be sufficient.
Someone questioned his integrity because he was allegedly the first to reveal that he alone had been recommended by the university’s search committee for the post in question. He did acknowledge that point but only after the pro-Beijing press had already done the same.
Someone else made the extraordinary comment that his academic accomplishments were not even comparable to those of an assistant professor. Yet another said Chan had not published enough in academic journals and someone claimed to have consulted Google, which revealed that his articles had only been searched four times in five years.
In response to these allegations, based on Billy Fung’s notes and recollection after the meeting, one council member called him a liar. Another said his English wasn’t very good and since the deliberations were conducted in English he must have misinterpreted what was said. Also, he had no integrity because he had violated the confidentiality rule by speaking publicly about what had been said at the meeting. Council chairman, Edward Leong, refused to confirm or deny, citing the confidentiality rule. He also said Fung must be disciplined for violating it.
Ironically, it was left to the pro-Beijing press to draw the correct conclusions and tie everything together in a way that HKU council members were too embarrassed to admit in public. Easy enough for the pro-Beijing press to do, of course, since it has been headlining this case off and on for a year. Council members would have had to be confined to some mountaintop retreat cut off from all sources of communication not to know that Chan’s HKU promotion had been built up into a major cause celebre by pro-Beijing forces.
As if deliberately adding insult to injury, quotes from controversial pro-Beijing barrister Lawrence Ma Yan-kwok were used to provide China Daily’s page one account: clear, concise, and to the point.
Concerns were raised, he said, about Chan’s political views after it was revealed last year that one of his law school subordinates, Benny Tai, had accepted an anonymous HK$1.45 million donation to help fund his Occupy central campaign.
Chan had shown himself to be unfit for the university post because he was not an “impartial” administrator. Hence he might condone a second mass occupation of Hong Kong as he had done with the first. Chan stood by and allowed Benny Tai to tarnish the university’s reputation while he planned and conducted his illegal Occupy campaign.