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Outrage in Hong Kong After Top University Appoints two Mainland Chinese Scholars as Vice-Presidents

Hong Kong University, credit HKU
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Oiwan Lam | Global Voices

One of them allegedly has direct ties with the CCP

Hong Kong’s academic freedom is potentially set for another blow as the governing council of Hong Kong University (HKU) confirmed the appointment of Max Shen Zuojun and Gong Peng as vice-presidents, respectively, of research and of academic development.

Both men hold positions at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the University of California (UC), Berkeley. Their appointment is viewed by students and alumni groups of HKU as a “take-over” of the island’s top university by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Controversy erupted after Hong Kong media discovered pages of Tsinghua’s official websites showing that Shen was elected, in 2014 and 2017, as a member of the CCP committee of the university’s department of industrial engineering.

However, Shen’s name no longer shows in the live versions of the respective pages. According to web forensics conducted by former director of Journalism and Media Studies Center of HKU Ying Chan, the pages were altered after the news of his appointment to HKU broke at the end of last week. Google-cache has preserved previous versions of the pages, Ying said on a Medium post.

In a statement, Shen said he has worked full-time at UC Berkeley since 2004 and that he only spends “a few weeks a year in Tsinghua.” He added that he is “not a member of the Chinese Communist Party” and that the confusion was caused by “an oversight by the webmaster of the respective website.”

As for Peng, since 2010 he has faced accusations, mainly waged by overseas Chinese websites, that he helped the daughter of China’s former Minister of Science and Technology Xu Guanhua getting accepted into a Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management in 1999. Gong denies those accusations.

HKU’s Alumni association pointed out that the HKU’s vice-chancellor Zhang Xiang, who led the recruiting for the two positions, had crossed paths with the newly-appointed vice-presidents: Zhang and Shen both have attended Nanjing University and all three of them have worked at UC Berkeley at around the same period.

The ties between the three men are been seen by Beijing’s critics in Hong Kong as “cronyism” in the appointment choices.

Since 2018, universities in mainland China have faced pressure to pledge loyalty to the CCP, with some forced to change their charters to accommodate CCP members on their administrations and boards.

When Zhang became HKU vice-chancellor in 2018, the student body, together with alumni communities, expressed concern that the mainland-born professor would interfere with the institution’s academic freedom.

Their doubts turn out to be justified. In July 2020, HKU’s tenured law professor Benny Tai was fired by the governing council for his involvement in the pro-democracy protests of 2014, despite objection from his department and the university’s senate.

Jeppe Mulich, a London-based lecturer of political history, noted on Twitter at the time of Tai’s sacking:

Mulich added: “The process towards his firing has been underway for some time, and it is a reminder that academic freedoms have been under threat well before the national security law. Now, however, the attacks on academia are on full display, as seen by the LO statement last night.”

Earlier this month, HKU, in defiance of protests from faculty members and the academic council, didn’t renew the contract of Head of Public Health Keiji Fukuda, who is also an advisor at the World Health Organization (WHO) and has led the university’s research into COVID-19.

Sources speaking on the condition of anonymity to pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily News said Xiang was behind Fukuda’s dismissal:

Following Shen and Peng’s appointments, a sit-in protest calling for reconsideration took place at HKU on October 27, in Twitter The student union of the University of #HongKong on Tuesday resorted to an impromptu sit-in protest outside the building where the university’s governing council was meeting to reportedly discuss the appointment of two Tsinghua University scholars.

Chanting slogans like “stop the vote”, the group of some 30 student representatives said they wanted to put pressure on council members to postpone the appointments, until background investigations into the candidates were completed. The student union also submitted 4,200 signatures it had collected in two days from students, staff and alumni, to the university’s registrar.

But the action was in vain. According to a statement by Council Chair Arthur Li, all council members with exception of the student representative voted in favor of the two appointments. Frances Sit from public broadcaster RTHK tweeted: #HKU Council Chairman Arthur Li’s​ statement: 2 profs made special effort to clarify positions, incld statement from #MaxShen confirming he is not a CCP mbr nor a party committee mbr. Issues of concern have been satisfactorily clarified & allegations found to be unsubstantiated. From the RTHK English News website, quote: “Former Tsinghua professors Max Shen and Gong Peng have been named Vice-Presidents of research and academic development respectively — despite allegations of cronyism and the reported Communist Party membership of Professor Shen.”

Former HKU student and Vice-Chairman of the Democratic Party Lo Kin-hei expressed frustration over the nominations on Twitter:

Fergus Leung, a district councilor who is currently studying at HKU, said also on Twitter: “Stakeholders of the University doubted whether academic freedom and institutional autonomy can be upheld under the HK #NationalSecurityLaw, fearing that simply criticising CCP in class could be a crime. But the management simply did nothing to address concerns.” He added: “And now, they are appointing professors with strong affiliation to the authoritarian regime of CCP to takeover research and academic development of our University. This shall signal the end of academic freedom and institutional autonomy at HKU.”

In the past few months, several universities in Hong Kong dismissed pro-democracy academics. Lokman Tsiu, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is among those whose contracts were terminated. He tweeted a list of other university professors who were in a similar situation, and whose terminations were regarded by the public as highly controversial: “Keiji Fukuda, public health, hku, VC refused to renew contract (oct 2020) , Stephan Ortmann, asian and international studies, cityu, contract not renewed (sep 2020), BennyTai, law, hku, fired despite tenure (july 2020), Shiu Ka-chun, social work, hkbu, contract not renewed (july 2020), Ip Lam chong, cultural studies, lingnan, denied tenure despite department support (july 2020).

For activist Joshua Wong, HKU’s appointments mark a new era for Hong Kong’s academia: “Despite backslash, #HKU council, mostly appointed by pro-#Beijing #Carrielam, approved 2 #Chinese scholars incl one, #MaxShen,who’s listed by #Tsinghua 3 times as “party committee member”. Adding: “It is the first time for individuals with CCP membership on record to directly take part in the university governance. Worse still, Shen was also reportedly a member of #China’s Thousand Talents Plan.”

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