Prominent Hong Kong professor and pro-democracy activist fired by university
A prominent Hong Kong professor and pro-democracy campaigner has been fired by his university, in a move that he and other critics described as a devastating blow to academic freedom in the city.
It came amid growing fears that city authorities may try to delay upcoming elections to Hong Kong’s legislative council, where pro-democracy candidates expect a strong showing. The vote could be postponed for up to a year, on grounds of a spike in coronavirus cases, local media reported.
The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, warned his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Tuesday that the UK was watching the conduct of the September poll closely.
The conversation between the two men came at the end of the most difficult month in British-Chinese relations for decades. Tensions are high over China’s introduction of a national security law for Hong Kong that gives it sweeping powers in the city.
Britain says it breaks promises of autonomy made at the time of the city’s handover from colonial-era rule, and has offered millions of the city’s residents a path to citizenship.
The decision to fire Benny Tai, tenured law professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), goes against a previous ruling by the university senate, which said that there were insufficient grounds to remove him.
“It sends a very chilling message about academic freedom,” said Yuen Chan, a senior lecturer in journalism at City University London who previously taught at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“It is the culmination of a period of increasingly political pressure on HK universities, which has been greatly exacerbated by the promulgation of the security law.”
Tai said the move was forced on the university and showed Beijing was determined to control intellectuals in the city, in a statement posted on social media.
“Academic staff in education institutions in Hong Kong are no longer free to make controversial statements … Academic institutions in Hong Kong cannot protect their members from internal and outside interference.”
The 56-year-old was a key figure in the 2014 “umbrella movement” protests, a pro-democracy movement that paralysed the city centre for over two months and paved the way for 2019’s more extensive protests.
Last year Tai was sentenced to 16 months in jail for his role, but has been granted bail pending an appeal.
Many members of the governing council, which voted to remove him, are appointed by the government. The university said it had observed “stringent due process”, but the move was welcomed by the office that represents Beijing’s interests in the city.
The Liaison Office said the decision “punishes evil and promotes virtue” and claimed that Tai had “intensified social conflict, and poisoned the political environment”, in a statement posted on its website. It added that Tai had “only himself to blame.
Lokman Tsui, assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Tai’s dismissal was part of a disturbing broader attack on academic integrity in the city.
“What’s disheartening is not only who they fire, but also the type of people that get promoted,” he said, adding that putting a premium on political loyalty was likely to cause a brain drain.
“Several academics I know have already left Hong Kong although a few have decided to stay and stand tall. But I expect the overall trend is that it will become harder for Hong Kong universities to remain competitive, to retain the talent they have or attract new talent.”