Hong Kong students and university staff rally to defend academic freedom
By Yimou Lee and Stefanie McIntyre
HONG KONG (Reuters) – More than a thousand students and staff staged a rally at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) on Friday, the second demonstration in a week to protest against what they say is interference by Beijing in academic freedom.
Beijing supporters on the university’s governing council blocked the appointment of former HKU law school dean and a prominent human rights advocate, Johannes Chan, as a university pro-vice-chancellor in a vote last month.
Chan, who had been recommended for the post by a university search committee, was a close associate of Benny Tai, one of the co-founders of last year’s Occupy democracy demonstrations that posed one of the greatest challenges to Beijing in decades.
Dressed in black, hundreds of people hunkered down on the campus of Hong Kong’s most prestigious university to listen to speeches from academics and students.
Two large banners draped from a wall read: “Defend autonomy of the university” and “condemn political interference”.
“We are here tonight to express our rage, our doubts and to explore what we can do next,” said Joseph Chan Cho Wai, a professor of politics at HKU, who wore a black T-shirt with a sticker that said “protect HKU”.
For more than a century, HKU, has served as a bastion of liberal education in the city that returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, producing many of its top bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers.
Britain handed Hong Kong back under a promise that core personal and commercial freedoms, backed by a British-style legal system, would be protected for 50 years.
Hong Kong’s constitution guarantees the financial enclave a high degree of autonomy denied in mainland China by its Communist leaders, including academic freedom, broad individual rights and an independent judiciary.
“I think it might be another opportunity for Hong Kong people to stand up to protect our core values, and I would say that this surely is a crisis to HKU as well as to Hong Kong,” Occupy’s Tai said at the campus.
The university’s staff and students featured prominently in the street protests last year to demand full democracy in the former British colony and some believe they are now being punished for their role in the rallies that at times resulted in running battles between police and activists.
The 79-day protests failed to persuade Beijing to lift a restriction on who can stand for election as Hong Kong’s leader in the next vote in 2017 but they triggered extensive debate about the mainland’s perceived encroachment over the city.