Uni Students: Free our schools from tyranny

University students, professors and alumni fear the unlimited power of the CE. Always honorary, it has become grubby and scary.


 

An air of political restlessness is pervading universities in Hong Kong with scholars and students mounting campaigns to remove the Chief Executive from the post of ex-officio head of universities and to democratise their governing bodies. Shocked and awed by the interventionist approach of Leung Chun-ying, they are adamant a change in universities ordinances would be the best safeguard for university autonomy and academic freedom in the long-run.

 

Given the fight for the appointment of legal scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro vice-chancellor of University of Hong Kong seems to have become futile, staff, students and alumni have prepared for a new battle over HKU’s governing structure.

 

Unifying force: CE out, students and profs in

The fear-driven clamour for change has united the student unions of eight universities, earlier split over whether to stay in the Hong Kong Federation of Students in the wake of the failed Occupy protests. There was a sense of togetherness when they jointly announced the holding of referendums in the eight universities before next February.

They plan to seek students’ opinions on the need and means to amend the university ordinances, including the possibility of removing the chief executive as chancellor and increasing the proportion of student and staff representatives on governing bodies.

It came after the HKU’s governing council broke a longstanding tradition last month when they vetoed a recommendation made by an internal search committee on the post of pro-vice-chancellor. Johannes Chan was the only recommended candidate. The veto stoked fears that Leung, in his capacity as university chancellor, could install loyalists to sit on the Council to bulldoze through  unpopular decisions.

 

Flunkies

Their fears were further fuelled last week after Leung named two pro-Beijing figures with leading roles in the anti-Occupy Central campaign to sit on the Lingnan University council. Maggie Chan Man-ki is a core member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. She also represented a group of taxi drivers who filed an injunction\ against Occupy activists to have them ejected. Another new appointee, Junius Ho Kwan-yiu is a pro-Beijing rural figure. He has also spoken out strongly against the Occupy protests.

Full exercise of those powers without self-restraint could become highly dangerous and immensely controversial.

The appointment of the pair has prompted calls for change at Lingnan’s council. On Monday, a group of students staged a protest outside a conference room at the university, where the council was holding a meeting. Council members agreed to hold an impromptu session with students outside the building. Pressed by students, at least six members said they supported the idea of setting up a task force to look into the council revamp.

 

I do because I must; It is my duty

Faced with the growing pressure for change, Leung stood firm, insisting he was obliged by law to exercise his power and fulfil his responsibility as university head. Speaking on Tuesday, he said: “The chief executive as the head of government not only has the power but also the responsibility to … deal with the granting of funds, monitor their performance and handle institutions which are seeking university status.”

The government, he said, had always stuck to the principle of appointing suitable candidates in appointing universities’ council members. Leung has also maintained they attached great importance to institutional autonomy. “But in exercising this autonomy, institutions must base it on the ordinances created at the time of their establishment,” he said.

Although the “stick-to-the-law” principle is a key aspect of the city’s rule of law system, Leung’s argument has failed to silence critics and dampen calls for change. The opposite is true. It helps deepen the conviction among students and scholars the ordinances, which were inherited from the British colonial era, must change.

Their feeling of urgency grew as cases were aplenty that Leung is eagerly keen to emulate the mainland’s “rule by law” (以法治國), which literally means to govern by using law as a tool in running the city. And more important, he is bent on making the maximum use of the powers given to him to achieve his goals.

 

Absolute power corrupts…

Exercising the last ounce of power may sound understandable. Nor it can be faulted. But put in the context of laws inherited from the colonial era that were aimed to assert control, full exercise of those powers without self-restraint could become highly dangerous and immensely controversial.

“A chief executive who shows no appetite for restraint in the use of power.

Take the case of Johannes Chan. Under the law, the HKU Council is empowered to veto recommendation by a search committee. But traditionally, the committee has operated in a highly autonomous mode and its recommendation has never been overruled by the Council, until the Chan casel.

By the same token, the Chief Executive holds the power of appointment. But it has been exercised with self-awareness about the importance of a balanced, pluralistic council.

The spate of controversies in universities reflects rising tensions between the government and universities, brought on a chief executive who shows no appetite for restraint in the use of power.

 

No limits

A firm believer in power, Leung has indeed been emboldened by Beijing’s hardened approach in Hong Kong policy. Hardliners in the Chinese officialdom have argued one of the major reasons for weak governance since the handover was that the government has been too soft and indecisive in their use of power.

Their argument is that the government simply has not invoked the powers they have in the Basic Law for governance. The solution to effective governance, therefore, lies with making use of the powers to their limits.

The change of emphasis on power and control is set to clash sharply with the growing aspirations for institutional autonomy, academic freedom and the trend of so-called “democratisation of campus” in universities.

There are few signs of a compromise, at least in the short run. Aside from Beijing’s broad political strategy over Hong Kong policies, the mainland authorities have become increasingly paranoid about the rise of political activism, not to mention pro-independence sentiments, in university campuses. That has been seen as an important factor behind the 79-day Occupy Movement last year. As for HKU, the alleged involvement of foreign forces in pro-democracy conferences held by its law faculty has further complicated things.

Pressure is growing on the universities’ governing bodies from Beijing and the pro-Beijing circle in the city for them to keep their campuses in order and dampen the fire of student activism.

More clashes and controversies seem to be the “new normal” in the city’s universities.

Chris Yeung

Chris Yeung

Chris Yeung is a respected senior veteran journalist and editor in Hong Kong.His storied career includes having served as the Editor-at-Large at the South China Morning Post and more recently as the Deputy Chief Editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

He writes on Greater China issues.

Chris Yeung

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Chris Yeung the author

Chris Yeung is a respected senior veteran journalist and editor in Hong Kong. His storied career includes having served as the Editor-at-Large at the South China Morning Post and more recently as the Deputy Chief Editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He writes on Greater China issues.

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