University Vote Echoes beyond Ivory Tower ; Rejected Promotion in Hong Kong Stirs Fears over Beijing's Influence

By Forsythe, Michael | International New York Times, October 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

University Vote Echoes beyond Ivory Tower ; Rejected Promotion in Hong Kong Stirs Fears over Beijing's Influence


Forsythe, Michael, International New York Times


A battle over the appointment of a professor to a top post has raised concern over what some say is the spreading influence of mainland China.

According to a well-known adage, academic politics are the most vicious of all because the stakes are so low. But here, a bitter battle over an appointment at the city's most prestigious university has become the biggest story in town, the subject of passionate debate, candlelight vigils and front-page headlines.

Late on Tuesday, the governing council of the University of Hong Kong, in a 12-to-8 vote, rejected a search committee's proposal to appoint a professor and former dean of the university's law school, Johannes Chan, to a higher post. In another city, such news might never have left the confines of the campus newspaper.

But supporters of Mr. Chan say the vote is the latest sign of the growing influence of mainland China's authoritarian politics in the vibrant civic life of Hong Kong, where many fear that the semiautonomous city's cherished freedoms are being eroded. They say Mr. Chan was rejected because of pressure from Beijing.

The issue has stirred memories of the monthslong sit-in protests - - over a China-approved plan for Hong Kong's elections -- that shut down major thoroughfares in the city last year. One of the leaders of those demonstrations, which began a year ago this week, was Benny Tai, a pro-democracy advocate who was a professor under Mr. Chan at the law school.

Mr. Chan, who specializes in human rights and constitutional law, is also a member of a pro-democracy group, Hong Kong 2020. He has been strongly criticized by pro-China news outlets here since he became a likely candidate for promotion to a post called pro-vice chancellor.

In January, two Chinese government-owned newspapers criticized the academic record and performance of Mr. Chan's department as being below international standards, charges that Mr. Chan rebutted. The newspapers, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, used leaked documents to support their case.

Mr. Chan's promotion was in the hands of a 22-member committee on which university employees and students are outnumbered by members from outside the university. Six of its members are appointed by Hong Kong's top official and its chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, an active supporter of Beijing's policies toward the city. At least five members are delegates to the National People's Congress or its advisory panel, and as such are obligated to support the Communist Party line at the risk of expulsion.

The possibility that Communist orthodoxy had swayed the decision was not lost on scholars of Chinese politics. Jerome A. Cohen, a professor at New York University, said the committee's decision, which was made behind closed doors, employed the Mao-era political tactic of zhengzhi guashuai, or "politics in command," which places the political imperative -- in this case, preventing the promotion of a pro-democracy university official -- above all else.

"This is very sad news for Hong Kong's autonomy and freedom," Mr. …

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