Threat to academic freedom in Hong Kong

The president of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) has appointed two of his cronies as vice-presidents. One of them allegedly being a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member, they will undermine academic freedom in Hong Kong.

Professors Max Shen and Peng Gong will assume their roles respectively as vice-presidents for research and for academic development in 2021. 

Prof Gong is a faculty dean at Tsinghua University. He held a professorship also at UC Berkeley until his return to China in 2009 for his current position.

Currently, Prof Shen is a department chair at the University of California, Berkeley, and also an honorary department chair at Tsinghua University, China. He had been listed as a CCP member on the website of Tsinghua University. However, his name was removed from the list after having been reported by Hong Kong media. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/education/article/3107236/mainland-chinese-professor-not-member-communist-party-says

End of academic autonomy

After the enactment of the draconian National Security Law in the territory, the appointment is the next major move by the Chinese government to curb freedom of expression with a party member to scrutinise academic activities. This time, they chose the University of Hong Kong, which is the oldest university of the city, considered by the Chinese as a British colonial legacy. 

With a party member in the university management, academic autonomy will be compromised. Scholars will have to censor themselves in order to conform to the ideology of the CCP. The interests of the party will be prioritised and override the advancement of humanities and science. 

For humanities, the impact will be obvious. Political scientists will not be able to criticise the party. Historians will have revise history to fit the requirements of the party. Anthropologists will refrain from studying the cultural minorities persecuted by the Chinese government. 

Contrary to popular belief, science and engineering will also not be spared from the control of the party. For example, cryptologists will have to compromise their encryption algorithm in order to allow the party to access everyone’s personal information. 

Consolidating his clique

Coincidentally, the president of HKU Xiang Zhang also shares a similar background with the two future vice-presidents. Born and bred in China, he went to the US for further studies and eventually became a professor also at UC Berkeley. 

Obviously, they all denied that they knew each other beforehand. Nevertheless, a clique of three Chinese professors in the top management already sends a message that the CCP wants to mark their territory and show that they're in control. 

Not the first time

In fact, it was only a matter of time before the incumbent president of HKU would plant more of his cronies in the top management. His appointment had already sparked controversy. Although he is certainly an outstanding physicist, he clearly lacked experience in university administration. The largest academic structure he had ever managed was a National Science Foundation center. 

On the other hand, other candidates were already either dean of faculty or even vice-principal. Whilst it is difficult to compare academic achievement as the candidates work in different fields, experience in management can be « quantified ». The position of university president is better suited to scholars with extensive administrative experience as this is the main work of the post. 

The appointment of Zhang might indicate that it was not a meritocratic decision but a political one. Now, everything has become apparent, but it is already too late and the reputation and academic freedom of the university will continue to deteriorate in the foreseeable future. 

Next week, we will talk about how the Chinese government and its Confucius Institute attempt to interfere with academic freedom around the world.

A blow to its reputation, but they don’t mind

If the recruitment process was truly international, we should see, by chance, staff from different corners of the world. However, the top management of the university consists of three professors from UC Berkeley, one of them allegedly with a Chinese Communist Party committee membership. 

Apart from the potential political pressure, their homogenous academic backgrounds will neither profit nor promote the development of the institution. Renowned for fostering exchanges between the East and West, the University of Hong Kong is supposed to be an independent university with a global perspective. The world does not need another UC Berkeley nor Tsinghua University.

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