Unsafe Harbour

Times Higher Education, September 10, 2015 | Go to article overview

Unsafe Harbour


Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are protected by law in Hong Kong, but increasingly its scholars say they are paying the price for drawing Beijing's disapproval. David Matthews reports from the territory

The attacks on Joseph Cheng Yu-shek began in July last year. First came a barrage of front-page stories in two Hong Kong newspapers widely seen as mouthpieces of Beijing, which accused the prominent pro-democracy academic of plagiarism and lying on a passport application.

Then, in the build-up to last year's Occupy Central protests, Cheng started to receive almost daily anonymous phone calls and letters, calling him a "traitor", a "running dog" and a lackey of "hostile foreign forces". His wife believed that she was being followed on the street.

A group of about 10 "patriotic" activists even came to his home and held up banners demanding that the university investigate the accusations of plagiarism.

The City University of Hong Kong, where Cheng was a chair professor of political science, initiated a wide-ranging inquiry into his work, and eventually demoted him to regular professor earlier this year, a few months before his retirement in June.

Cheng says that the university found him not guilty of plagiarism but concluded his work was "not up to the highest standards". This is not the first time Cheng has faced allegations of plagiarism: he was investigated previously in the mid-1990s, when he was demoted from his position as a dean despite a finding that the claims could not be proven. Commenting on the more recent investigation, he insists he did nothing wrong, while the university has declined to provide details about the findings of the case. But he believes that the attacks against him, and the unusual prominence given to the case by some media, were politically motivated: he is the convener of the Alliance for True Democracy, a coalition of groups campaigning for universal suffrage in the territory.

Speaking to Times Higher Education over coffee in a Hong Kong cafe, he asks: "If I was just an academic [accused of] plagiarism, why should it be the page one headline for three to four days?"

Some Hong Kongese scholars say that Cheng's story reflects a wider loss of academic freedom that is creeping through the territory, the one part of China where universities and academics have traditionally enjoyed the autonomy that is lacking on the mainland.

Fears that Hong Kong's special, ambiguous status was under attack from the Chinese administration helped draw more than 100,000 protesters to the streets last year, with key parts of the city's business district occupied for months. The immediate flashpoint was an announcement by Beijing in August 2014 that a nominating committee, which critics expected to be packed with loyalists, would screen candidates for the election for Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017.

The protesters' tent cities were cleared by December, without the Tiananmen-style massacre that some feared at the height of the occupation. But the city is still as politicised as ever and anxiety about mainland encroachment runs high.

Academic freedom and university autonomy is guaranteed by law in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, a number of scholars who are not "politically correct" - that is, they are too critical of Beijing - believe that they are being targeted by media smear campaigns from pro-communist newspapers, passed over for jobs, or blocked from taking senior management positions by university councils loyal to Beijing.

In January, the same newspapers that accused Cheng, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, denounced Johannes Chan Man-mun, the former dean of the law faculty at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and another pro-democracy activist, accusing him of leading the department to a poor performance in an upcoming assessment of research quality.

Responding in a different newspaper, Chan defended the department's research record and asked whether the "upper echelon of government" had cooperated with the media to attack him. …

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