University of Hong Kong approves vice-president appointments amid political affiliation row, backlash from students and staff

Chan Ho-him
·5-min read

The University of Hong Kong’s governing council on Tuesday endorsed the appointment of two Tsinghua professors for senior management roles despite strong opposition from students, staff and alumni.

The 23-strong council, which has a mostly external membership, voted in favour of mainland Chinese academics Max Shen Zuojun and Gong Peng taking up the respective vice-president posts of research and academic development, sources have told the Post.

Both of them gained 21 supporting votes, with one veto and one abstention by a student representative for Shen and Gong, respectively. The professors are expected to assume their new roles next January.

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Mainland Chinese professors from Tsinghua University named for top HKU roles

HKU’s student union and alumni concern group had raised questions over Shen’s political affiliations, after he was listed as a Communist Party member on Tsinghua’s website, although that reference was later removed after local media reported it.

The University of California, Berkeley, which has employed Shen since 2004, said on Tuesday that the professor had told them he was not a member of the Communist Party, adding staff were not asked as a matter of policy about any political affiliations they might have.

Critics also raised concerns over the two scholars holding positions at UC Berkeley, the same institution where HKU president Xiang Zhang served, before taking up his current role in 2018.

A source present at the meeting told the Post that Zhang, who voted in support of both the appointments, said the focus should be on candidates’ academic excellence. He also denied having connections with either Shen or Gong.

Professor Max Shen Zuojun. Photo: Handout
Professor Max Shen Zuojun. Photo: Handout

More than 4,200 students, staff and alumni signed a petition organised by HKU’s student union against the appointments, demanding the council postpone its deliberations on the issue.

HKU student union president Edy Jeh Tsz-lam said the student body would not rule out pursuing legal action, including challenging the council’s decision through a judicial review.

In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, HKU council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung said the recommendations for the appointments were the result of a thorough global search and an elaborate review and consultation process.

He added that the issues of concern against the two professors had been satisfactorily clarified and that all allegations had been found to be unsubstantiated.

It was understood Shen presented a statement at the council meeting, saying he was a US citizen, and had never been a member of the Communist Party.

Shen said he was “shocked and stunned” by the allegations in Hong Kong media reports.

He told the council he was given permission by Berkeley to work at Tsinghua, where he took an honorary professorship in 2014, along with a department chair post, a role in which Tsinghua assigns the appointee to a party committee as standard procedure.

Shen added that he was a believer in academic freedom, and was committed to upholding the truth and respecting different views, according to the source.

He also denied he was a member of the Communist Party in a separate statement to the public.

Students register their anger outside the Knowles Building on Tuesday over the appointments. Photo: Dickson Lee
Students register their anger outside the Knowles Building on Tuesday over the appointments. Photo: Dickson Lee

“After I read the reports I immediately contacted Tsinghua and they have rectified all information about me on their websites.” he said. “I later found out the error started several years ago when I, as the department chair, was mistakenly assigned to the party committee. I hope this clarification can clear all misunderstandings between us.”

In an email sent to all staff and students, the HKU president further clarified that he and the two candidates had no contact at UC Berkely aside from bumping into one another a few times on campus. He added he had taken all necessary steps to avoid any potential conflict of interest.

Zhang also criticised the leaking of the two professors’ information before the appointments were confirmed, saying the move would not only injure the university’s reputation but also affect their talent-recruitment process.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who holds the position of ex officio chancellor at HKU, said she believed the university would consider candidates’ academic achievement and competency when filling senior roles.

Lei Tsz-shing, a student representative on the council, said he was worried about the decision on the appointment.

“I am extremely worried about the university’s institutional autonomy. My eyes are filled with tears, because I really love this place,” he said.

But another council member, former chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Brian Stevenson, said the council had a “thorough discussion” over the appointments.

The University of Hong Kong has said some reports regarding the situation have not been accurate. Photo: Sam Tsang
The University of Hong Kong has said some reports regarding the situation have not been accurate. Photo: Sam Tsang

“I can assure you every member of that council is committed to academic freedom, absolutely. There is no suggestion of no academic freedom,” he said.

Gong is currently professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s department of environmental science, policy and management. He was first appointed as an assistant professor at the university in 1994.

Shen serves as professor in Berkeley’s department of civil and environmental engineering and the department of industrial engineering and operations research. He first joined the university in 2004.

Eleven members of HKU’s court, its legislative body, on Tuesday signed a joint petition urging the council to defer the decision on Shen’s appointment and demanding the academic clarify his political affiliations with members of the university.

“The council should reconsider the recommendation to appoint Shen only after stakeholders are assured that he would carry out his duties in accordance with the core principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy,” the petition read.

Ahead of the meeting, Ying Chan, former head of HKU’s journalism and media centre, also called on the council to postpone voting on the candidates “to allow time for further due diligence and deliberation” over Shen‘s political background.

Professor Joseph Chan Cho-wai, of HKU’s department of politics and public administration, meanwhile raised questions over whether president Xiang Zhang was “surrounding himself with people of familiar background”, given the UC Berkeley affiliation he shared with both Shen and Gong.

Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung

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