Explaining the fuss over the University of Hong Kong’s appointment of two mainland Chinese scholars to key posts

Gary Cheung
·7-min read

The University of Hong Kong, the city’s oldest tertiary institution, is no stranger to controversies. HKU has been embroiled in political rows in recent years, the latest being the appointment of two academics from Beijing’s Tsinghua University, with one previously listed as a Communist Party member.

The HKU governing council confirmed the appointment of professors Max Shen Zuojun and Gong Peng as vice-presidents at a meeting on Tuesday evening, against calls by the student union and some alumni to reconsider the move amid concerns over academic freedoms.

The fears reflect growing scepticism in Hong Kong’s polarised society towards mainland Chinese authorities, with critics arguing Beijing is increasingly encroaching on the city’s autonomy.

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Shen was listed on Tsinghua’s website as a Communist Party member, but that title was removed from the page last Thursday.

Professor Max Shen. Photo: Handout
Professor Max Shen. Photo: Handout

The University of California, Berkeley, however, where both academics also hold positions, said in a reply to the Post on Tuesday that Shen had “voluntarily shared with us that statements saying he is a member of the Communist Party are incorrect”.

Other political situations HKU has found itself mired in include the emergence of banners and posters on campus advocating Hong Kong’s separation from the mainland, especially at the height of anti-government protests last year, a controversy over the governing council’s rejection of liberal scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun from a key management post, and a chaotic siege by student leaders of a council meeting in 2015.

The Post looks at the issues at stake and how the university selects its vice-presidents.

HKU appointment saga: has a shadow been cast over the campus?

Why have the appointments caused such a fuss?

Critics hit out at the appointment of both Shen and Gong, but most of the opposition centred on the former, who is head of the department of industrial engineering at Tsinghua, and also a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, and the department of industrial engineering and operations research at UC Berkeley.

He first joined the American university in 2004. Shen took an honorary role at Tsinghua in 2014.

Professor Gong Peng. Photo: Handout
Professor Gong Peng. Photo: Handout

Gong is a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s department of environmental science, policy, and management. He first served as an assistant professor at the university from 1994.

He is also the head of Tsinghua’s department of earth systems and science.

Shen was listed as a Communist Party member on Tsinghua’s website until last Thursday, when the title was removed. But a HKU source familiar with the matter said the academic was never a member and had spent most of his time at UC Berkeley in recent years despite taking up an honorary teaching role at Tsinghua.

UC Berkeley also said he told them he was not a party member.

When the proposed selections were announced last week, opposition lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector, as well as HKU student union president Edy Jeh Tsz-lam said they believed the university should clarify Shen’s Communist Party status.

“This is important because if he is a member, he will be obliged to abide by party disciplines,” Ip said. “There are questions on whether this contradicts the core values of academic freedom in Hong Kong.”

Mak Tung-wing, deputy convenor of HKU’s alumni concern group, also said he was concerned over whether Shen was a member of the Communist Party. If he was, it should be questioned whether he would be able to defend the university’s academic freedom, being in charge of research policies, Mak said.

What is at stake?

It may sound like an internal squabble, but key appointments at HKU, founded in 1911, have always captured the public’s attention because it is a storied institution with a reputation for academic freedom.

According to the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings 2021, announced in June, the university ranked 22nd among 1,000 of its global peers, up three places from the previous year. It was the best-ranked local tertiary institution in the global survey.

Staff and students in a protest targeting HKU’s governing council in 2015. Photo: Felix Wong
Staff and students in a protest targeting HKU’s governing council in 2015. Photo: Felix Wong

Has the university faced any other controversies on appointments of senior management posts?

On July 28, 2015, HKU’s governing council decided to continue delaying the decision on whether liberal scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun, a former law dean of the university, should become one of its pro-vice-chancellors, part of the team that supports the president.

The closed-door meeting of the council ended in chaos when students stormed the venue after learning that members were sticking to their guns in deferring Chan’s appointment. In the chaos, a university staff member fainted and was sent to hospital.

Liberal scholar Johannes Chan. Photo: Nora Tam
Liberal scholar Johannes Chan. Photo: Nora Tam

Earlier in the year, pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po ran a three-page spread on the results of a study about how HKU research was not ranked as highly as that from Chinese University. The paper went on to chastise Chan, saying: “Chan spends all his time on politics and neglects research. He has buried many talents.”

In September 2015, the council voted down Chan’s appointment.

The council’s rejection of Chan, a scholar supporting the city’s opposition and who was close to then colleague and Occupy co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting, was seen by critics as politically motivated.

Tai was sacked by HKU three months ago over convictions for the Occupy protests.

What are the roles of vice-presidents and pro-vice-chancellors?

HKU’s senior management team is currently led by Xiang Zhang, the president and vice-chancellor. His team members are Provost Richard Wong Yue-chim, the university’s executive vice-president Steve Lo Chit-ki, and four vice-presidents, also known as pro-vice-chancellors, who oversee areas ranging from academic staffing to institutional advancement.

Like the vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor, the vice-presidents serve on the university’s court, which can write or change campus statutes; and the senate, which is responsible for all academic matters and welfare of students.

Since Zhang took the helm in 2018, four senior management staff members had quit. They include Andy Hor Tzi-sum, who resigned last year as vice-president for research, citing “personal reasons”.

Shen and Gong will be vice-presidents managing research and academic development, and with their appointments, there is now a total of six pro-vice-chancellors in the HKU structure.

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What is the appointment mechanism for senior positions at HKU?

HKU’s presidents are appointed with the help of a search committee and a selection committee. The former screens candidates and comes up with a shortlist for the latter to make recommendations.

But for other senior management posts, including in the current case, the selection committee is not needed.

Instead, the university sets up a search committee for each post to make candidate recommendations to the council. Both panels are chaired by president Zhang.

The HKU president’s office had been searching worldwide since last July and November to identify candidates for the two roles. They are publicly recruited by a headhunting company and further recommended by the school’s search committee.

It is understood that each search committee, chaired by Zhang, comprises seven to eight people. The committee recommended Shen and Gong.

Both will assume the positions from January next year at the earliest and serve for a five-year period.

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