CHINA HKU’s ‘mainland-phobia,’ ‘political bias’ over management appointment hindering HK’s academic future: experts

CHINA

HKU’s ‘mainland-phobia,’ ‘political bias’ over management appointment hindering HK’s academic future: experts

Global Times

19:17, October 27, 2020

The University of Hong Kong. (Photo: hku.hk)

Two professors from the Chinese mainland have been nominated to the management of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), drawing ire from the University's student union. Such "mainland-phobia" and "political bias" will hinder Hong Kong's future in education, observers noted.

The nominated professors, Shen Zuojun and Gong Peng, are both department heads at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and have been named to fill the posts of vice-presidents for research and academic development, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported Friday. The background and political background of the two nominees remain the focus of the controversy.

Shen was listed as a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Tsinghua's website until Thursday, with the title later removed, according to the SCMP.

The HKU Student Union issued a statement on Sunday urging the university council to postpone the appointments until the candidates' backgrounds were investigated and a probe report published. It said the University should not be a venue for political wrestling and the plan to appoint members with obvious political affiliations to the senior management to take charge of research direction would "violate the University's commitment to institutional autonomy and academic freedom."

The Union's petition was joined by over 2,100 HKU students, faculty members and alumni as of 8 pm Monday, according to the Union on Facebook. The petition letter will be handed over to the HKU council before it discusses the decision on Tuesday.

"Shen and Gong's academic level are beyond doubt. The current controversy over them reflects Hong Kong academic circle's unresolved distrust of the Chinese mainland and their biased view on CPC members," Li Xiaobing, a Hong Kong affairs legal expert at Nankai University in Tianjin told the Global Times on Tuesday.

"This narrow political bias will hinder the development of Hong Kong's universities," Li noted, "Hong Kong, as a bridge between China and the West, should absorb and accept talent from all backgrounds regardless of his or her political affiliations."

Shen Zuojun is head of the department of industrial engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing and also a professor and department chair at University of California, Berkeley, where he co-directs an environment and new energy center.

Gong Peng is head of Tsinghua's department of earth systems and science, and also a professor at UC Berkeley.

Both Shen and Gong could not be reached for comments.

Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that she does not interfere in the University's internal affairs, despite being its chancellor.

According to the University of California, Shen had said he is not a member of the CPC,  the SCMP reported Tuesday.

"The University of California, Berkeley, does not ask its faculty, staff or students to declare their political affiliations," a spokeswoman from the University of California was quoted as saying in the SCMP report. "The right of university employees to hold their own political beliefs and academic perspectives is a cornerstone of our society and of academia," the spokeswoman said.

"If US universities can judge scholars solely on academic standards, putting political views aside, why Hong Kong's universities cannot?" Tang Fei, a principal at Hong Kong's Heung To Secondary School (Tseung Kwan O), told the Global Times on Tuesday, referring to the fact that both candidates were hired as professors at US universities. "The HKU is stuck in 'mainland-phobia'."

The HKU's senior management positions include a provost and six vice-presidents. Currently, four of six vice-chair positions are vacant. The HKU president's office has reportedly been searching worldwide for months for qualified candidates to fill the vacancies.

If endorsed, Shen and Guo would serve five-year periods starting from January 2021 at the earliest.

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