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  • James Tam

What Academic Freedom?

Hong Kong “politics” has decomposed into a tiny repertoire of elemental clichés. Nonetheless, they can cause disproportional disruptions when deployed vociferously by ardent sloganeers with singular determination. By far the most overworked slogan is — of course — freedom and democracy. It’s become licence to do practically anything without consequence. Well, freedom is pointless if fettered by legal constraints, isn’t it? Other banners in the arsenal include, in order of perceived popularity, social justice; freedom of press/speech/expression, academic freedom, and a few other simplistic beauties.

Freedom and democracy, having worked overtime during Occupy Central, is taking a break. Academic freedom has taken centre stage, with the University of Hong Kong (HKU) as backdrop.

To make a long and boring story short, HKU is recruiting a Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) to be in charge of HR and Finance. He reports to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC). Interestingly, this position is also vacant. Realistic cynics say no self-respecting academic would touch it with a twenty-foot pole. The only (only!) candidate for the PVC job is Dean of Law Mr. Johannes Chan. He’s a Mister, not Doctor. Unlike 99% of modern-day academics, including private tutors for secondary school students (refer to mini-bus advertisements), he doesn’t have a Ph D degree. Perhaps that had freed him from the tedium of academic duties, and given him the time and energy to help found the Civic Party, a local political party comprising mainly lawyers who regard the law as something they toy with for a fee. In addition, under Mr. Chan’s management was one Mr. Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who made himself well-known by occupying Central in Wanchai. He allegedly misappropriated academic funds for his misplaced occupation. Tai might still face disciplinary action, though that seems unlikely because whatever he did was in the name of freedom and democracy.

Now, in my humble opinion, not having a Ph D degree is no big deal. Einstein didn’t have one. But he was quite good in research and figuring things out, wasn’t he? Anyway, the Council knows its sole candidate for PVC is kinda controversial, especially as the boss to whom he should report is currently non-existent. What does one do when something’s kinda controversial these days? Nothing! So the august University Council wisely dithers. Then one fine day in July, a group of students, egged on by core members of the Civic Party, barged into a Council meeting to demand action. The student leader, in front of television cameras, later demonstrated publicly he had no idea how members of the University Council, which he held in the deepest contempt, are appointed. But that’s beside the point.

All those cultural revolutionary theatrics can be Googled, with due distortions and omissions one way or the other, by Free Press journalists. I’m more interested in the sloganeering in this incident, for personal academic interest. Slogans are now the single most powerful political tool in HK, rendering rational debates laughably old-fashioned, without an audience. Used effectively, a simple slogan can magically change colours right in front of your eyes, turning black into white into black. Look, HK is ranked No.1 in Human Freedom Index (, but the cry for freedom and democracy remains the Mother of all Slogans, so there you go.

One of the key slogans in the HKU fiasco is academic freedom. What has academic freedom to do with the administrative details and politics of appointing a PVC? God knows. Furthermore, HKU is not particularly academic according to measurable parameters either. Even within tiny HK, its research performance is reportedly way below that of the University of Science and Technology (

If we indulge a little further in analysis, HKU becomes even more enigmatic. Most institutions exist for a purpose. Barbershops cut hair. Massage parlours give massages. Their performance is monitored by something external and objective, such as market acceptance of service or output, and profitability, as judged by greedy shareholders. A university’s output is research and graduates. Being a public institution, its operation is supervised by a governing body — the University Council.

HK’s research achievement is world unknown, therefore not worth mentioning.

Many have pointed out that the output of HKU — useful and employable graduates such as those produced by “academically unfree” mainland universities who have helped to build things like the Beidou Satellite System, high speed rail, quantum communication, Ebola inoculant etc. etc. — has slipped alarmingly. But such accusations cannot be easily quantified, especially when graduates are supported by Papa and Mama, and invisible in unemployment figures.

Therefore, the Council remains the only nominal check and balance. If the Council’s decisions, whenever unwelcome by some teachers and students, are deemed a violation of“academic freedom,” HKU would be given a free and unaccountable hand to do whatever it pleases, including doing absolutely nothing. It’d become a publicly-funded black box, fully autonomous within the autonomous HK SAR. Wow.

Perhaps the next step in this “cultural revolution” would be for private companies to refuse disclosure of company accounts to the taxman, citing commercial secrets and the free-market principles? Well, why not. Relevance is becoming irrelevant in our brave new world.

I feel extremely fortunate that as retiree, I no longer pay tax.

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