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As a number of universities in Hong Kong change their top leadership, the comments of outgoing and incoming university heads are being closely scrutinised for their commitment to Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms, particularly academic freedom, as the city comes under increasing pressure from Beijing.

With Chinese officials more strongly monitoring Hong Kong’s universities than in the past particularly since the emergence of small but vocal voices on campus for Hong Kong ‘independence’ from China concern has risen within the academic community over the ability of universities to maintain autonomy and academic integrity, and to avoid becoming embroiled in political disputes as pressure from the mainland increases.

Among those departing from their posts, Peter Mathieson vice chancellor of Hong Kong University, or HKU, and Joseph Sung, vice chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, or CUHK, in particular were lauded during the student led umbrella movement protests of 2014 15, when they engaged with protesting students, urging calm as police threatened force to clear the streets of thousands of demonstrators.

The protesters were calling for universal suffrage for the selection of Hong Kong’s chief executive a demand that did not succeed.

But the atmosphere soured in the past year when 10 university presidents and vice chancellors, apparently at China’s bidding signed a joint statement in September describing the appearance on campuses of banners advocating Hong Kong independence from China as an “abuse” of freedom of expression.

“Universities across Hong Kong are in a state of danger in relation to political interference,” Timothy O’Leary, a member of HKU’s governing council, told Hong Kong radio last week.

This includes not just interference from the Hong Kong administration, but also “increasingly in the present and in the future, interference from the Beijing government”, he said.

“That can only be bad for the academic standing and the academic freedom of the universities. Any kind of political interference of that nature is going to undermine the quality of the education the universities can offer,” he said.

The most high profile departure has been that of Mathieson, a British national who left as HKU vice chancellor in December for a post at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, having served just over three years of his contracted five year term in Hong Kong.

Some criticised his apparent lack of commitment to Hong Kong but others believe he was unlikely to have got a second term as HKU’s head when his recommendation for deputy vice chancellor, outspoken pro democracy law professor Johannes Chan, was controversially rejected by the HKU governing council in 2015. Chan said that decision was due to “political interference”.

More recently, students criticised Mathieson for discouraging debate after students printed articles and posted messages calling for Hong Kong independence from China, a view that has little backing in wider Hong Kong society.

A survey conducted between 18 December 2017 and 2 January 2018 by HKU’s Academic Staff Association found that of 600 of the 2,060 staff who responded, 78% “strongly disagreed” that Mathieson had “effectively protected academic freedom” at the university during his tenure.

HKU’s O’Leary said, however, that on academic freedom Mathieson had “done a very good job”.

“Many former vice chancellors of the university and I fear many future vice chancellors of the university would not be as effective as Prof Mathieson has been,” he said.

Meetings with Chinese officials

In his departing speech in December and in an interview with Hong Kong’s English language daily South China Morning Post newspaper published on 8 January, Mathieson said he wished higher education in Hong Kong was not “so politicised”, and revealed that he not only met with Hong Kong officials during his tenure but also with Beijing’s liaison officials in Hong Kong “all the time”.

“All the university leaders have had contact with the liaison office, and the office takes an interest in education in Hong Kong, as in other affairs,” Mathieson said. “I consider that part of my job.”

His remarks have already sparked lawmaker Ip Kin Yuen, who represents the education sector in the Hong Kong legislature, to call on Mathieson to provide more details on the kind of exchanges that took place and whether it involved any “orders or pressure” to “execute or refrain” from certain actions.

If officials had given Mathieson direct advice, “it could amount to interference, intervention or even suppression. These would absolutely be in violation of the [Hong Kong] Basic Law,” Ip said last week.

Article 137 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, states that all educational institutions may retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom. “The concept of institutions being autonomous is something that neither local government officials nor mainland government officials should interfere in,” Ip said.

Mathieson has said it is not unusual for HKU to receive funding from the mainland government. “I think all universities in Hong Kong are very interested [in mainland research funding],” he said, but he noted that access to research funding from China is currently only possible for Hong Kong institutions in collaboration with a mainland university or other entity.

“We have explored how we can benefit from that in the same way as everybody else,” Mathieson said.

However, some academics fear such funding could give China more leverage over Hong Kong’s universities, and in an end of year message to HKU students and staff on 21 December, Mathieson advocated an international approach for HKU rather than focusing solely on ties with mainland China.

The Briton is being replaced by China born US academic Zhang Xiang, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, known for his work on metamaterials, in particular creating an ‘invisibility cloak’. He is one of 90 foreign nationals who are members of the 800 strong Chinese Academy of Sciences and his links with the Chinese research establishment is seen as conducive for securing research funding from China.

Zhang has already stated that HKU should get more mainland research funding. This has led to close scrutiny of the nature of his ties to Beijing on the one hand, and on the other it was noted that he had accepted US Department of Defense grants in the past. Zhang has insisted his research was not for military purposes.

In an online post, Ying Chan, a former director of HKU’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, questioned whether Zhang would be able to safeguard academic freedom and institutional autonomy at HKU if he continued to seek funding from either the US government or the Chinese ministry of education.

“The incoming president is in many ways an untested, unproven quantity,” said O’Leary, referring to Zhang. O’Leary added that academics would need “to be ever vigilant in observing his performance especially on these issues of [university] autonomy and academic freedom”.

At CUHK, popular and respected vice chancellor Joseph Sung steps down this year after holding the post for seven years.

The university was one of those at the centre of a controversy after a banner advocating Hong Kong’s independence from China was put up on campus last September. Students and the university’s management locked horns over whether or not it should be taken down.
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