Mainland Chinese professors from Tsinghua University named for top roles at University of Hong Kong

Chan Ho-him
·4-min read

Two mainland Chinese professors from Tsinghua University have been named to take up leading management roles at the University of Hong Kong.

One of them, Max Shen Zuojun, was listed as a Chinese Communist Party member on Tsinghua’s website until Thursday, with the title later removed, sparking calls for clarification from an opposition lawmaker and HKU’s student union.

Two sources have confirmed to the Post that Shen and Gong Peng, who both are also attached to the University of California, Berkeley, have been recommended to fill the posts of vice-presidents for research and academic development.

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The HKU governing council is expected to discuss the appointments next Tuesday. If endorsed, both of them would assume the positions from January 2021 at the earliest and serve for a five-year period.

Max Shen Zuojun is the head of the department of industrial engineering at Tsinghua. Photo: Handout
Max Shen Zuojun is the head of the department of industrial engineering at Tsinghua. Photo: Handout

The HKU president’s office had been searching worldwide for months to identify candidates for the two roles.

Senior management positions at the university included a provost and six vice-presidents, but four had resigned since mainland-born US scholar Xiang Zhang took the helm as HKU president in 2018, including Andy Hor Tzi-sum who last year resigned as vice-president for research citing “personal reasons”.

Shen is the head of the department of industrial engineering at Tsinghua, and is also a professor at UC Berkeley, where he is a co-director of an environment and new energy centre.

He obtained his PhD in industrial engineering and management sciences from Northwestern University in 2000, and also taught at the industrial and systems engineering department at the University of Florida.

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His primary research interests are integrated supply chain design and management, and practical mechanism design.

The webpage of Shen’s department at Tsinghua does not currently list him as a member of the Communist Party’s committee overseeing the university, naming him instead under the department’s “administrative team”.

However, a check showed that Shen had also been on the party committee list as recently as Thursday.

But a HKU source familiar with the matter said on Friday that Shen was not a party member, adding that he spent most of his time at UC Berkeley over the past few years despite taking up an honorary teaching role at Tsinghua in 2014.

A university’s spokesman later said the institution would only announce personnel appointments after all procedures were completed.

“It is not appropriate for the university to comment at this stage. At present, parts of media reports are inconsistent with facts,” the spokesman said without elaborating.

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Gong, meanwhile, is the head of Tsinghua’s department of earth systems and science, and is also a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s department of environmental science, policy and management.

His research focuses on the use of remote sensing and geographic information system technology to monitor and map natural resources and human settlements.

Opposition lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector, as well as HKU student union president Edy Jeh Tsz-lam believed the university should clarify whether Shen was still serving as a Communist Party member.

“This is important because if he is a member, he will be obliged to abide by party disciplines,” Ip said. “There are questions on whether this contradicts the core values of academic freedom in Hong Kong.”

Mak Tung-wing, deputy convenor of HKU’s alumni concern group, questioned whether there was any possible connection between Shen, Gong and HKU president Xiang Zhang, as all of them had links to UC Berkeley.

“Whether they are close to Xiang Zhang is one of the questions we would ask,” he said.

He also said he was concerned over whether Shen was a member of the Communist Party. If he was, it should be questioned whether he would be able defend the university’s academic freedom, being in charge of the institution’s research policies, Mak said.

On Saturday, HKU council member Lei Tsz-shing said information received last week had failed to enable them to carry out fully informed deliberations, given more critical information about one nominee was only disclosed recently. He requested voting on the nominees be postponed.

“A proper due diligence [should] be conducted in the meantime,” he said.

Due diligence on the candidates should cover the full background of the candidates and the reason why the search committee has failed to conduct due diligence, Lei said.

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