Hong Kong protests: officials withdraw HK$250 million in funding requests for two universities after disquiet at lack of control over campuses voiced by pro-government lawmakers

Kanis Leung

Officials have pulled HK$250 million (US$32 million) in funding proposals for medical teaching facilities at two of Hong Kong’s top universities after pro-Beijing lawmakers expressed dismay over management’s handling of protests on their campuses, the Post has learned.

The Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau wrote to lawmakers on Tuesday that it had decided to withdraw the funding requests for two projects at the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University, saying that some Legislative Council members had expressed concerns over the proposals.

This was the second time in two weeks that the government had pulled a proposal at Legco’s Finance Committee involving building university facilities, as campuses became the latest battlefields of the continuing political unrest.

A pro-establishment lawmaker, who wished to remain anonymous, said the camp was very unhappy with what had recently happened at universities and thought that the presidents and management had failed to control their institutions.

“So we want to understand thoroughly how the schools will manage or rectify the current situation of having no regulations on campus before agreeing to approve the funding requests,” he said, adding that most in the camp refused to give the nod.

“If the government forcibly puts the request to the committee, then we have to vote no.”

The government hoped to put the proposals to a vote when it was sure they would pass, he added.

Under the proposals, the government would spend HK$59.7 million to build a teaching-research complex for Chinese University and HK$194.3 million to enhance facilities and medical campus development at HKU.

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But in the letter to lawmakers, the bureau said: “To allow more time for the Food and Health Bureau to explain the proposal to members, the government has decided to withdraw the item from the agenda.”

It said it would strive to submit the item to the Finance Committee for deliberation within this legislative session as soon as possible.

Universities citywide have become battlefields for protesters who heeded calls to block roads outside campuses earlier this month, leading to fiery clashes with police and the subsequent occupation of some sites.

A protester hurls a petrol bomb in a clash with riot police on the Chinese University campus. Photo: Felix Wong

At Chinese University, radicals dropped objects from a bridge onto Tolo Highway below on November 11, beginning a four-day occupation by demonstrators, who attacked police with petrol bombs, arrows and catapults while officers fired more than 1,000 rounds of tear gas in return. The protesters retreated on November 15.

Similar scenes occurred at Polytechnic University in Hung Hom, where protesters erected barricades and set fire to a footbridge linked to the campus. They blocked the nearby Cross-Harbour Tunnel and threw petrol bombs at its toll booths, forcing the closure of the main artery linking Kowloon and Hong Kong Island for two weeks since November 13.

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After extremely violent clashes with police, in which they set fire to an armoured vehicle, radicals then occupied the campus. Police surrounded the campus on November 17, as more than 1,000 protesters inside refused to leave. While most had either been arrested, sent to hospital or had their information jotted down by police, a small number of protesters remained in the cordoned campus.

The government announced on Tuesday that the tunnel would reopen on Wednesday after most of the damage was repaired.

Protesters had also blocked roads outside HKU in Pok Fu Lam and vandalised the campus, but volunteers and the Highways Department later cleared the blockades.

Huge amounts of petrol bombs were also found on campuses, especially Chinese University, where police sources said about 8,000 were seized.

Police also suspect protesters took dangerous chemicals from various laboratories including at Chinese University and City University.

Students protest at the University of Hong Kong campus in Pok Fu Lam. Photo: Nora Tam

On the funding proposal, the faculty of medicine at Chinese University said it had maintained close communication with the government and other stakeholders.

It said the project was important to accommodate a rise in the number of medical students as well as the growing demand for teaching and research. It said it hoped to have support for the item to maintain the world-class standard of Hong Kong’s medical education.

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said the rescheduling seemed to be a punishment for students.

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“I totally can’t understand why it can work like this. The agendas have been scrutinised. There were no particular disputes during the process,” he said.

“The items are about higher education and medical services. If it’s punishment, it’s punishing the next generation of Hong Kong and residents who need medical services – that means everybody.”

During a Finance Committee meeting on November 15, the government also pulled its funding application of HK$1.4 billion (US$180 million) to build new health care facilities for PolyU’s Ho Man Tin campus, despite it being the first item on the list. According to Legco documents, the expansion aims to allow PolyU to deliver training in allied health services.

Facilities including labs, classrooms and offices were to be built on an 11,800 square metre site.

Explaining the government’s decision, Undersecretary for Food and Health Chui Tak-yi said: “At this stage, different people have different views, so we need more time to explain it to different people.”

On the same day, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said the item had not been withdrawn, but reshuffled. “It is not a punishment,” he said.

The item had been approved by the public works subcommittee under the Finance Committee in June.

Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun said it was strange that the government had pulled the PolyU item, since lawmakers had already backed it.

PolyU said it had been consulting stakeholders since early 2013 about its campus expansion. It said it would continue to coordinate with all parties in the hope of launching the project early, so it could expand its facilities to nurture more health care professionals to cope with the city’s needs.

The Post has contacted HKU for comment.

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