A seemingly small case of a professor denied promotion has suddenly become a big story in Hong Kong, pitting the forces of greater self-government against those of China's authoritarian central government.
Local democrats and international scholars have accused Beijing of meddling with autonomous institutions in order to block Johannes Chan from the post of vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University. Prof. Chan has been sympathetic to last year's Occupy Central protests in China’s most cosmopolitan city. The university rejected his candidacy on Tuesday.
Chan is the former dean of HKU's law school and a distinguished constitutional scholar. He wrote the forward to a recent book by law professor Benny Tai on civil disobedience whose strategy partly informed the 79-day Occupy protest, of which Prof. Tai was a cofounder.
Months ago Chan was selected to be vice-chancellor by a university search committee. Normally selections are quickly approved by a 21-person council made up of 13 outside members and eight university staff and students. A number of the 13 are appointed by Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung, considered close to Beijing.
Yet this spring, the council instead twice voted (12-8) to delay discussion of the vote. At the same time two pro-China media outlets in Hong Kong began what democrats call a smear campaign against Chan.
Antipathy and divides deepened over the summer. Many Hong Kong academics favor increased freedoms under the “one-country-two systems” formula that guarantees Hong Kong’s autonomy and characterized the delay as heavy-handed interference in city affairs. This month, ahead of Tuesday's vote, a majority of a 9,000 member Hong Kong University alumni body voted to support him.
The New York Times today quoted both New York University legal scholar Jerome Cohen, an authority on China, and noted Harvard professor of Asia studies Roderick MacFarquhar, who is in Hong Kong, criticizing the vote against Chan.
“Xi Jinping is determined to eradicate from China what might be called the ‘seven deadly sins’ of Western values,” MacFarquhar …wrote in an email “Hong Kong is a poster child for those values, and the rejection of an H.K.U. committee’s choice for pro-vice chancellor because the nominee was politically incorrect by Bejing standards is an example of the ongoing battle to whittle away those ‘sins.’”
The South China Morning Post today quoted legal scholars from Australia and the United Kingdom who called the vote vindictive and said the council had never before “stooped so low.”
A candle-lit vigil was held outside Chan’s office this week, which also marks the first anniversary of the student-led Occupy Central protest. The protest was held in opposition to Beijing's ruling that Hong Kong citizens would not be allowed to directly elect their leader, which democrats here call a betrayal of an earlier promise.
Last week Tai was in Washington and spoke on human and civil rights at a Freedom House forum. The event coincided with a working dinner at the White House between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is widely seen as having tightened the screw considerably on free expression and association in China.
Chan spoke to Hong Kong media today charging political interference in the vote denying his position, the SCMP reports.
Speaking on RTHK, he said that extensive coverage of his candidacy since last November illustrated that political fears motivated opposition to his candidacy.
“You can see how big the political interference was,” Chan said. “When was the last time left-wing newspapers ran hundreds of articles about a university appointment?” By his friend's count, more than 300 articles had been published attacking him.