‘Mao’s Invisible Hand in Hong Kong’

A pro-democracy academic’s rejection for a top university post points to erosion of the city’s traditional freedoms, experts say.

People hold the Chinese and Hong Kong flags as they take part in a pro-government rally in Hong Kong on August 17, 2014.  Thousands protested in Hong Kong on August 17 against plans by pro-democracy activists to paralyse the city centre with a mass sit-in unless China grants acceptable electoral reforms.      AFP PHOTO / ALEX OGLE        (Photo credit should read Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
People hold the Chinese and Hong Kong flags as they take part in a pro-government rally in Hong Kong on August 17, 2014. Thousands protested in Hong Kong on August 17 against plans by pro-democracy activists to paralyse the city centre with a mass sit-in unless China grants acceptable electoral reforms. AFP PHOTO / ALEX OGLE (Photo credit should read Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)

On September 29, the governing board of Hong Kong University (HKU), one of the territory’s most esteemed institutions of higher education, voted to reject the promotion of Johannes Chan, a former law school dean, over the objections of the faculty and students who recommended him for a top administrative post. Chan’s supporters, along with some Hong Kong lawmakers and respected legal scholars, believe that his rejection marks Beijing’s growing influence over the city.

The self-governing Chinese port city of Hong Kong has long enjoyed political, media, and academic freedoms absent on the mainland, which is governed by the Chinese Communist Party. But Beijing has worked to assert its dominance in former British colony, sometimes behind the scenes, polarizing the city into pro-mainland and pro-democracy camps — a division which came to a head during the student-led Umbrella movement in late 2014 which saw parts of the city immobilized for weeks by protesters demanding expanded voting rights.

Chan’s supporters say his rejection for the higher university post was politically motivated. Chan specializes in constitutional law, and his law school colleague Benny Tai was a leader of last year’s pro-democracy demonstrations. Half of the 22 members of the committee that rejected Chan’s nomination were either appointed by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, or are directly accountable to Beijing as delegates to the National People’s Congress. In the past year, pro-mainland media outlets have published more than 300 articles attacking Chan in what some have called a smear campaign. In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss claims that those who voted against Chan were acting under the influence of China’s leaders in Beijing, and what such a development could mean for the future of Hong Kong.

Denise Y. Ho, assistant professor in the department of history at Yale University:

That Chan was barred from being appointed a pro-vice-chancellor has been called the end of academic freedom by Hong Kong lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, and “a visible litmus test” by Jerome Cohen and Alvin Cheung in the pages of the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. I agree with Cohen and Cheung that this is indeed one of the most visible cases, one trumpeted in Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing media and a rallying point for HKU students and alumni. Precisely that it is so visible, however, should lead us to reflect on the ways in which academic freedom can be chipped away slowly and quietly, in quotidian and unseen ways. Unmentioned and unmentionable, these erosions are far more insidious. What does it mean that scholars are under surveillance? What are the implications of the stranger who appears in the audience of your lecture course, who appears again in the talk you’ve organized on China’s Cultural Revolution? How do you protect your undergraduates when these unfamiliar eyes and ears appear, unbidden? How do you speak to your own conscience when a visiting speaker or a lecture topic is deemed inappropriate? How do you shake off worries about your visa status, knowing only too well that your colleagues with less privileged passports may have it far worse?

I remembered a 2007 keynote address by political scientist and University of Wisconsin professor Edward Friedman, “Studying China is Dangerous.” In his speech Friedman traced a long genealogy of threats to those who had advocated clear and well-founded thinking on China, from John King Fairbank and Owen Lattimore in the 1940s and 1950s, to those of his generation who spoke up on American foreign policy in the context of the Vietnam War. Friedman himself spoke presciently on the possibility of “a discrediting of the Chinese forces of openness and reform and then their scapegoating and defeat by Chinese forces insisting on, at long last, standing up for China against those who supposedly threaten and contain China and keep it from its dignified and glorious destiny.” Friedman stressed that it would be our professional responsibility to defend speakers of truths, and I cite him here in the spirit of that integrity. To teach and to research on China is also to be an advocate, to support not only better understanding of China — of which Hong Kong is now part — but others who do so as well.

Cohen and Cheung also called attention to Chan’s blackballing as an assault on the rule of law in Hong Kong. Here I think it is useful to consider what Nara Dillon calls “political vs. legalistic approaches to governance.” Writing about the role of “civil society” or China’s voluntary sector, Dillon suggests that we think of the state’s approach as binary. On the one hand, there are laws and regulations governing civil society, and having laws and regulations is important to the state’s legitimacy. But on the other hand, the ways such laws and regulations are implemented is actually via rectification reviews, a form of political campaign which owes its provenance to the legacies of the Mao period. If we may apply this description to Hong Kong, Beijing’s purported support for local rule of law in general and HKU’s institutions for leadership appointment in particular, exist as legalistic approaches to governance. But, as the case of Chan makes clear, laws and regulations may be trumped by a political campaign: Mao’s invisible hand in Hong Kong.

David Schlesinger, founder of Tripod Advisors and former chairman of Thomson Reuters China:

What is it that makes a place work? What is it that separates a world city from a second- or third-tier city?

More specifically, what is it that has made Hong Kong (a major port city on China’s coast with a population of just over seven million) different from Dalian (a major port city on China’s coast with a population of just under seven million)? And what can continue to make it different and relevant and international? My belief is the answer isn’t a simple checklist, where having six or seven out of 10 items is a passing grade and good enough.

Fundamental to a city being a world-class city is its belief in its own uniqueness and its pride in its institutions. The case of HKU and its council’s tortured, months-long consideration and ultimate rejection of a distinguished legal scholar as a university pro-vice-chancellor undermines that belief at its core and threatens what had been Hong Kong’s strength and uniqueness. It makes Hong Kong much more like Dalian than it was.

Hong Kong’s uniqueness was encapsulated in the phrase “one country, two systems” that was supposed to define its post-colonial existence as a Special Administrative Region of China. The phrase represented the strong sense of independence in which Hong Kong’s institutions prided themselves, even though, to be fair, it was an ideal they weren’t always able to live up to fully in practice.

An independent judiciary. An impartial civil service. A free press. An uncowed university system. A public atmosphere of free debate. As ideals these were all things that contributed to the atmosphere that made Hong Kong an international center, an incubator of talent, a locus of business and commerce. The strong smell of politics surrounding the Chan case was so overt and the circumstances — from email hacking to character assassination — have been so ham-fisted that it has eroded that very crucial aura of uniqueness.

The question now is simply: is the experiment of a special, world-class Hong Kong over?

If those behind the ultimately successful attacks on Chan are today simply reveling in their victory, they are making a mistake. For by winning this battle, they’ve made a huge step towards losing the war to keep Hong Kong prosperous and relevant. For if the universities are so subject to politics, how long before the courts are undermined? And if that happens, there is no reason to locate oneself or one’s business in Hong Kong as opposed to Shanghai, Chongqing, or, even, Dalian.

If the people behind the attacks on Chan come to realize the danger and now work very urgently and diligently to shore up the beleaguered institutions, from the press to the courts to the universities, then Hong Kong has continued hope. If, however, Hong Kong sinking into the sleepy irrelevance of a second-tier city is actually what they want, then this was a great step forward on that sad journey.

Ho-fung Hung, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University:

The apparently politically motivated rejection of Chan’s appointment to a senior post at HKU makes many see the death of academic freedom in Hong Kong. The revelation by the university president, Peter Mathieson, that the rejection decision by the university’s governing council could be orchestrated by Beijing, and that some of his emails were hacked and published in pro-Beijing newspapers, are disturbing but predictable. Ever since the sovereignty handover in 1997, there have been plentiful cases in which pro-Beijing newspapers launched Cultural Revolution-style critiques of outspoken scholars, calling for their dismissal from the universities. There was also an episode in 2000 when the administration of Hong Kong’s head of government at the time, Tung Chee Wah, reportedly put pressure on the university to shut down its opinion polls program that recurrently showed the unpopularity of the government. But these attempts were futile, constantly rejected by scholars and university administrators. The rejection of Chan’s appointment is the first major victory of the authorities in reining the universities in. It sets a precedent that senior appointees of universities will need to pass the Beijing test. It is setting a new normal for Hong Kong academia.

This episode will have wider political repercussions too. Incumbent Chief Executive C.Y. Leung is unpopular, even among the city’s elite. Some commentators predict Beijing will not support his reelection in the small circle election in 2017. But that’s wishful thinking. From Beijing’s perspective, Leung is a good chief executive. His government ended the Occupy Movement last year without making any concessions or shedding blood. Now he scores again by finally breaching the defense of academic freedom. Beijing is likely to see him as an effective enforcer of its recent hardline policy of moving Hong Kong into the cage of one country, one system.

There is a complication though. On the same day of Chan’s rejection, Li Ka-shing, the most influential tycoon in Hong Kong, openly responded to Chinese official media’s recent harsh criticism of him over his withdrawal of investment from China. He said that these criticisms made him shiver and mentioned “Cultural Revolution-style” thinking in his statement. Back in 2012, he told the media that he had not voted for Leung in the chief executive election. In the meantime, Jasper Tsang, a senior pro-Beijing politician and the current president of the Legislative Council, as well as the leaders of the Liberal Party, which represent business interests, have become ever more overtly against a second term for Leung. These people have been key allies in the party’s united front in Hong Kong, and they control a large number of votes in the elitist Election Committee that picks the chief executive. If Beijing eventually pushes for Leung’s second term in 2017, they might be able to muster enough votes to support another candidate. Such a scenario would amount to a mutiny within the establishment.

The rejection of Chan’s appointment is a victory of Beijing’s new hardline over Hong Kong, and it boosts Leung’s chance for a second term. Such an elevated chance, ironically, inevitably will aggravate the internal rifts in the establishment. Hong Kong is heading toward more political turmoil. This time the turmoil is not likely to come from the streets, but from within the ruling elite circle in Hong Kong.

AFP/Getty Images


Denise Ho is an assistant professor in the department of history at Yale University.

Ho-fung Hung is the Wiesenfeld professor in political economy at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Protest with Chinese Characteristics and The China Boom.

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