Another moderate forced out of HKU’s Council – but not Johannes Chan

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If the goal is control of the HKU Council by pro-Beijing forces, they have claimed another victim even before the Johannes Chan issue is resolved. With surgical precision, the government excises the democratic ‘cancer’.

Photo: Professor Yuen Kwok-yung (left) helped Professor Lo Chung-mau (right) to an ambulance as he claimed he injured his knee on the night of the siege. Original Photos: HKU Undergrad

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung (袁國勇) and Professor Lo Chung-mau ( 盧寵茂) are both stars in the prestigious medical school at the University of Hong Kong. Yuen, a microbiologist, rose to prominence after he discovered how exactly the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus infects humans. Lo became a household name for his leading role in the school’s record-breaking liver transplant team. Both, however, have been plunged into the quagmire of politics as pressure mounts for the university’s governing council not to appoint a pro-democratic legal scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun (陳文敏) as pro-vice-chancellor.

Down on one knee, Back up fighting

The lingering controversy turned ugly after a group of students stormed into a conference room to interrupt a University Council meeting last week. Lo faced accusations and ridicule by netizens for “diving”, as cheating footballers habitually do on the pitch, after he fell onto the floor, holding his knee in pain. He clarified he had never said he was pushed by students, but blasted them and members of the society who opposed a council decision to defer the appointment by using “violence” instead of expressing their views in a rational way. If violence is allowed to continue, Lo warned of more in hospitals and courts, offering recent examples: doctors being beaten for giving allegedly wrong treatment; judges lambasted and courtrooms occupied because of their ruling.

In a sharply different perspective, Yuen said students were not the cause of the controversy. He made no bones about the fears of external political pressure for the university over the Johannes Chan saga. At a broader and deeper level, he waded into the highly-sensitive “one country, two systems” zone.

Yuen said Hong Kong had “been very successful in amalgamating the seemingly contradictory values and cultures” of the people who live here for more than a century. But in the past three years, it seemed the city had lost that ability, he said. He did not name Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who took power three years ago.

The tale of the two doctors says volumes about the intensifying political tussles in universities in the midst of political polarisation in the society as the inherent contradictions of the “one country, two systems” come to the surface.

Natural Beijing adherents

It may not be fair to label Lo as a yes-man for Beijing. But his views about governance are closer to the mainland way of thinking and approach, which puts more emphasis on order and stability, power and authority.

This line of thinking has been manifestly expounded by Professor Laurence J. Lau, a former head of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who is husband of Ayesha MacPherson, a HKU council member, in an article published in the South China Morning Post on August 3. She claimed she felt unwell, and was subsequently hospitalised after students stormed in and blocked her access to the parking lot and her car.

Saying he did not write because of his wife’s ordeal, Lau described the students as “spoiled brats”, who should be punished for their mob behaviour. “If this mob is once again allowed to go scot-free, it will encourage similar mobs elsewhere, demanding different things, and then Hong Kong will become truly ungovernable.”

The prominent economist, who sits on the Our Hong Kong Foundation founded by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa as an honorary adviser, cited the mayhem as another case in point showing “not all (Hong Kong) people are ready for democracy.”

Micro and macro

The mentality of Lo and Lau in targeting at students and people is in stark contrast with Yuen’s approach in taking a microscopic look at the root cause of the appointment saga and, more importantly, the conflicts over “one country, two systems.”

There is no denying students’ protest action has upset the council system, and that it has fallen short of people’s expectation of civilised, rational discussion and debate at universities for resolution of disputes. They can be pardoned, however, because of the failure of the council to respect and uphold the university’s systems, institutions and authority as they are obliged to.

Despite their repeated denials, the council has failed to convince doubters and critics with sound arguments and good reasons that there was no politics involved in their earlier decision to handle Chan’s appointment until after a new provost is named.

The opposite is true. There is mounting evidence showing the enormity of political pressure for the council to strike down the recommendation of Chan by a top-level committee comprised of Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson and four other senior university staff.

Heavyweights, heavy pressure

Speaking at a TVB Pearl programme Straight Talk on August 5, council member Arthur Li Kwok-cheung (李國章) questioned whether Chan really wanted to do the job if he loved HKU now that his appointment has “caused havoc”. On August 4, an article published in the People’s Daily’s overseas edition said Chan should give up his candidacy as the best choice to safeguard the HKU and the social consensus. The article claimed the Civic Party, which led the pan-democratic opposition force, was behind the campaign to fight for Chan’s top post.

Seen as a moderate, Chan had kept a low profile in the Occupy Central protests, during which he was on research leave overseas most of the time. At one stage, he joined calls for students to consider withdrawing from the occupied area. During the universal suffrage debate, Chan maintained that civil nomination is not the only form of democratic nomination process. He has joined a group led by former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, which has proposed a compromise electoral blueprint at the latter stage of the reform battle.

That the appointment of a moderate pro-democratic scholar has shocked two distinguished doctors, rocked the university and the academia and deepened anxiety about “one country, two systems” is yet another sign of the political ills of Hong Kong.

Moderates out, Beijing stays

Yuen said he preferred getting to know more about the world of bacteria and virus than politics and has quit the Council. Lo has vowed not to resign, saying there should be no politics in the council. If the goal  is to push moderates out and keep pro-Beijing people in power, it  appears that this is another mission accomplished, even before the Johannes Chan question is resolved.

Lo, the university’s head of surgery, will find it futile to try to remove politics from the institution, which has been increasingly seen by Beijing and the pro-China camp as an anti-communist base and a bastion of student activism.

As Beijing and Leung moved to do surgery at universities, in particular through senior appointments, politics in academic institutions will grow wild like untrammeled bacteria. The battle for control in universities has just begun.