Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement one year on: The University of Hong Kong as the new battleground

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement one year on: The University of Hong Kong as the new battleground

Sik Ying Ho

The 79 days of the Umbrella Movement occupation in the Admiralty, Mongkok and Causeway Bay areas of Hong Kong made it impossible for either Hong Kong or the international community to ignore the number of people involved or the aspirations they represented (1). During the occupation I was a proud to be one of the few academic protesters at the occupation sites. I felt a strong sense of solidarity with the students and pro-democracy Hong Kongers, the so-called “yellow ribbons”. After the end of the occupation there was a brief period of post-umbrella movement depression, but then people started what is called “deep plough and intensive cultivation”. We believed that the Umbrella movement had awakened the democratic aspirations of a whole generation and that it was time to transform people’s strength into a sustainable civil society movement, sowing the spirit of democracy deep into the community. Unfortunately, within a split second, Professor Johannes Chan and the Law Faculty of HKU became the new battleground of political oppression.

The new battle ground: HKU Pro-vice-chancellor selection controversy

Johannes Chan (2) was thought to be front-runner for the post of pro-vice-chancellor for staffing and resources at HKU. He was unanimously recommended to the HKU Council by the selection committee headed by the Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson in December 2014. The Council (3) was then required to decide whether to appoint him. Chan is a well-known liberal legal scholar who had close ties to one of the co-founders of the Occupy Central movement, his colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting (4). Chan was criticized in pro-Beijing newspapers, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao for his academic record. Chan has counted 350 such attacks. He was accused, among other things, of being so busy with politics that he neglected research and of holding activist meetings under the guise of academic events.

According to an article written by Kevin Lau in Ming Pao, parties close to the government applied pressure on committee members behind the scenes to block Chan’s appointment. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (who is also chancellor of HKU and all Hong Kong’s public universities) has been reported to have telephoned members of the committee to persuade them to vote against Chan’s appointment. Hong Kong University Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson believes the pressure on him and others who had backed the appointment of Johannes Chan as pro-vice-chancellor was “orchestrated” by some political elements. Mathieson told Reuters that his personal emails had been hacked and that some had been published in pro-Beijing media.

The then Council chairman, Dr. Leung Chi Hung, denied allegations that he had intervened in the selection. The council repeatedly deferred the decision to appoint Chan on the pretext that it should wait until a new provost was in place. The decision was delayed through votes on 30 June and 28 July. On 29 September, the Council rejected Chan’s appointment (by 12 votes to eight) through a secret ballot in a closed meeting; no reason for the decision was provided. Council members said that the discussion of Chan’s candidacy had been “good” for the university and Hong Kong and that there was absolutely no political motive.

Students and alumni, however, condemned the decision as politically motivated, due to Chan’s ties with Benny Tai. Raising a question about whether this was about punishing Johannes Chan for failing to discipline his colleague? It is widely thought that the decision to reject Chan’s appointment as a pro-vice-chancellor is connected with the fact that he is “an internationally renowned legal scholar and administrator who champions the fundamental values of human rights and the rule of law.” The failure to provide credible reasons for not appointing him is, therefore, a “litmus test of the preservation of academic freedom,” according to a Post article by Jerome A. Cohen and Alvin Cheung. 

Whereas I had felt a strong sense of solidarity with other protesters during the Umbrella Movement, with the move of the battlefield to the university, I felt much more vulnerable and alone. I came to realise how I had been naïve about fighting for democracy and the price one has to pay. It is not just about sleeping on the streets, civil disobedience or being put on trial in the court like a hero. It is about facing up to your own boss, the university authorities and the whole system of assessment that would put you to shame if you were seen as a loser. It is about fear of losing the job you have always loved. It is about having to decide whether to be clever and beat the system by complicity in the process or being seen as stupid.

The Blood and Tears of a HKU Professor

For a long time, the media could find no more than 3 Professors who were willing to speak up. The Alumni Association was able to organize some protest actions but the HKU teachers and students were relatively silent. The decision not to appoint Professor Chan as pro-vice-chancellor represented a threat to academic freedom and added to the evidence that the Chancellor, who is also the Hong Kong government’s Chief Executive, could use his power to run the university on his terms. At this time, I felt that I could not hold my head high on the campus. I felt ashamed of the ensuing silence until four of us organized a silent protest march on campus, in which 2000 staff members and students took part, leading to the formation of HKU Vigilance to monitor academic freedom.

Before the march I kept saying that I did not understand how, when pro-democracy teachers who are critical of China are punished, there could be such silence. Actually, I do, more than I have ever imagined, especially when I was in the middle of my application for full professorship and began to feel my own fear. The voices of well-intentioned colleagues who did not want to see me getting into trouble made things worse. When I invited colleagues to join the protest, the reasons that they gave for refusing alerted me to the possible risks of sticking one’s neck out. There refusal was based on the need to avoid being seen to be “bringing resistance culture back to the university” by encouraging students to speak up or articulating our ideas in ways that would be considered to be challenging authority.

I also began to recognise Rosalind Gill’s account of the guilt, shame and fear engendered by the ever-expanding demands of working in the neo-liberal university – exacerbated by our commitment to our jobs. She argues that we need to think critically about “how some of the pleasures of academic work (or at least a deep love for the ‘myth’ of what we thought being an intellectual would be like …) bind us more tightly into a neoliberal regime” (Gill 2010: 241). We do understand that not everything that is valuable can be measured, but we have diligently agreed to generate all the output that is needed for our tenure and promotion. The culture of shame and fear is not new to us at all.

Despite the formation of HKU Vigilance and the election of two of our members onto the HKU Council as staff representatives, this is still a lonely struggle. It is not about tear-gas or police violence with 200,000 yellow ribbon citizens, but dealing with the neo-liberal academy as a scholar who has to face pro-establishment colleagues or managers who will work together to turn us into slaves of RAE, REF, GRF and impact factors and make us fearful for our job security and prospects in academia.

Most colleagues have become so used to such managerialism with its claims to improve efficiency via accountability, quality assurance and performance evaluation. These notions have become increasingly common in the governance of universities. Some even feel that this is the only way to ensure fairness based on merit rather than favouritism. There is little voice for an alternative or more defensible form of higher education governance along the lines of what it means to be a community. We are all complicit in the process leading to various kinds of damage to our colleagues and students. We fear that we would be shamed if we fail to live up to the expectations for us to be excellent. Academics used to have more freedom and must continue to have the freedom to be critical of the outside world. If academics are not allowed to be critical, who will be?

In the current formation of the HKU Council, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying can appoint many people in his camp as Council members in order to manipulate appointments of officials, administrative arrangements and the teaching approach of HKU. It is widely believed that this is how Executive Councillor Arthur Li (known as King Arthur) became the new council chairperson. It is clear from the pattern of recent appointments to the governing bodies of our top academic institutions that the current Chief Executive’s priority is to select only those who can be relied upon to toe the government line, thus paving the way for increasing political control of, and interference in, the running of our universities.

Most Hong Kong citizens however, are too busy with their own precarious existence to realize that this is not only a crisis for the academy. This has been brought into sharp relief by the forced disappearance of the chief editor of Mighty Current, Lee Bo and his four colleagues at the Causeway Bay Bookstore known for selling political books critical of China’s leaders. This is another assault on freedom of expression and has raised fears not just about Hong Kong’s press freedom but also about the rule of law as well as the One Country Two Systems principle. As long as our autocratic leaders keep abusing their power and placing themselves above the law, controversies similar to that surrounding the HKU appointment scandal will continue to happen at different levels of society. As such threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms continue, in the end we will all be called upon to take a stand.

1. The Umbrella Movement occupation, from September 28 to December 15 2014, was a protest against Beijing’s decision to impose pre-selection of the candidate for the 2017 Chief Executive election.
2. Johannes Chan is Professor of Law and former Dean of the Faculty of Law (2002-2014). In recognition of his distinguished contribution to both advocacy and legal research and publications, he was honoured by the Chief Justice in 2003 by his appointment as the first (and so far only) Honorary Senior Counsel in Hong Kong. He specializes in human rights, constitutional and administrative law. He has appeared as counsel in many human rights and constitutional law cases. Internationally, he has worked on specific issues with many non-governmental organisations (such as Amnesty International, Lawyers Committee, the International Committee of Red Cross, Article 19).
3. The HKU Council is the governing body of the University, comprising University members (both staff and students) and lay members, with a ratio of lay to university members of 2:1
4. Of the three original leaders of the Occupy Central, two were academics: Chan Kin Man from sociology, CUHK and Benny Tai, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, HKU

Rosalind Gill (2010) ‘Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of the neo-liberal university’, in Róisin Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill (eds) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.


Sik-Ying Ho is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work & Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. As an academic activist she co-founded the University of democracy-to-come, Hong Kong Shield and HKU Vigilance. Recent books on the Umbrella Movement are Everyday Life in the Era of Resistance (抗命時代的日常) and The Umbrella Politics Quartet (雨傘政治四重奏).v