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Letter To Hong Kong

Presenter: -
Legislator Emily Lau

 Last month, the embattled vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, Prof. Tsui Lap-chee, dropped a bombshell. He handed a letter to the chairman of the university council Dr C. H. Leong, saying he would step down when his contract ends in August next year. Dr Leong, who is also a member of the Executive Council, broke the news to members of the university council at a meeting held on 25 October.

The surprise announcement by Prof. Tsui shocked the community. He is an eminent geneticist who took up the job nine years ago in the wake of a controversy surrounding his predecessor Prof. Cheng Yiu-chung. The scandal involved then Chief Executive C. H. Tung and HKU pollster Dr Robert Chung. Dr Chung had been conducting opinion surveys on the government's popularity and found that the Chief Executive's popularity was plummetting. Mr Tung sent an assistant to meet Prof. Cheng to get him to put pressure on Dr Chung.

When Dr Chung revealed this, the community was scandalized. The university ordered an independent inquiry, headed by a court of appeal judge, to investigate allegations of government interference in academic freedom. This led to the resignation of Prof. Cheng.

After that Prof. Tsui was appointed vice-chancellor. He worked hard to rebuild the shattered confidence of staff and students and restored the university's good name. HKU is not only the SAR's top university, it also regularly heads international league tables as one of Asia's leading institutions of higher learning and research. Thus it is unfortunate that Prof. Tsui has to leave under a cloud.

There is no doubt that Prof. Tsui's sudden decision not to seek a third five-year term is related to the sorry circumstances surrounding the visit by Vice-premier Li Keqiang on 18th August. It is an open secret that Mr Li's visit to the university to mark its centenary was decided at short notice. A guest who attended the ceremony held in the Lok Yew Hall said he received the invitation less than 10 days before the event.

    At the centre of the row was the tight security mounted by the police. News reports said between two to three thousand police officers were deployed to ensure the Vice-premier could not see or hear the protesters. Since it is well-known that Mr Li will succeed Mr Wen Jiabao as premier, some commentators accused the government and the university of using excessive means to curry favour with the Vice-premier.

A full-page newspaper advertisement signed by 1,500 people called on Prof. Tsui to apologise and for Police Commissioner Andy Tsang to resign. The statement said that by inviting the Vice-premier to attend the ceremony celebrating the university's centenary, the university has demeaned itself from a free campus to a place for suppressing dissenting views.

    Responding to the accusations, Prof. Tsui said the Vice-premier's visit to the university was special and meaningful but expressed regret at the university's oversight in the handling of security on campus.  He said he was shocked that such a large police contingent was deployed on the campus and had sent a letter to the Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee seeking an explanation.

The university council brushed aside calls for an independent inquiry like the one set up 10 years ago. Instead it appointed council member and former president of the Law Society Lester Huang to head a panel to review the matter.

According to newspaper reports, Prof. Tsui had done several things which upset the powers that be, both in Hong Kong and Beijing. One big blunder was to hint that the Vice-premier's visit was not initiated by the university. Another mistake was criticising the police, and the third was his numerous apologies. It is also said that Prof. Tsui supports an independent inquiry headed by former Chief Justice Andrew Li, but that also did not find favour with members of the university council. According to some HKU alumni, in the last few weeks, the vice-chancellor looked exhausted and demoralized.

In this controversy, many people could not understand the way the university council chairman Dr Leong handled Prof. Tsui's decision not to seek another term. Although the matter was discussed at the council meeting on 25 October, the item was actually not on the agenda and not all council members were present. It is amazing that such an important matter was handled in such a disastrous way. One cannot help but ask, "What is going on at HKU?"

Some press reports said that Dr Leong had met Prof. Tsui and indicated to him that his desire to seek another term would not be supported. Having got the message, Prof. Tsui submitted the letter saying he would step down when his current term expires in August next year. Dr Leong has denied this version of event. But when asked whether he had tried to persuade Prof. Tsui to stay on, he did not reply. Dr Leong also said one quality a vice-chancellor should command is political sensitivity and tact. Thus one must ask, what political mistake has Prof. Tsui made?

The answer may be found in an article in the China Daily. It said the vice-chancellor should stop panicking and cease apologizing to a small bunch of frantic protesters. The Vice-premier was his honoured guest attending the university's centenary celebration at his invitation. Security of this national leader should be Prof. Tsui's primary concern, and the police were there to help him. HKU owes an apology to the hard-working men and women in uniform who performed their duty in ensuring the smooth progress of this important event and instead got blamed for doing a good job.

As many university academics said, the selection of a new vice-chancellor usually takes more than a year, so why did Prof. Tsui announce his decision to leave 10 months before his contract expires? Some people said Prof. Tsui has indicated he would be happy to serve another term. What made him change his mind? As a member of the review panel, the Dean of the Faculty of Law, Prof. Johannes Chan said, the review is not yet completed, why did the vice-chancellor announce his decision to leave at this time?

Compared to the controversy on August 18th, the departure of  Prof. Tsui is a much more serious matter. Some students want to conduct a referendum to find out what the students and staff members think.  HKU must also find out if political pressure has been brought to bear to force Prof. Tsui out. Is this an attempt to send a signal to the presidents of other universities so that they will be more politically sensitive? As the Chinese saying goes, killing the chicken to scare the monkey.

The universities' institutional autonomy, academic freedom and freedom of expression are issues close to the hearts of many Hong Kong people. They are values which lie at the core of "one country, two systems" and must be vigourously defended. I hope the staff members, students and alumni of HKU will help to get to the bottom of this disgraceful saga.