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Crowds protest against Hong Kong university’s appointment of Beijing-backed academic

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SHOWS: HONG KONG, CHINA (REUTERS – ACCESS ALL)

Crowds of demonstrators voice their anger over the University of Hong Kong’s choice for its governing council chairman and express worry over erosion of academic freedom.

Crowds in Hong Kong on Sunday (January 3) rallied for academic freedom and protested against the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) appointment of a Beijing-backed academic as its chairman.

Organizers put the number of protesters at 3,000, while the police said at its peak 830 people participated.

Arthur Li, a former Hong Kong education minister, was appointed chairman of HKU’s governing council on Thursday (December 31) despite widespread objections.

The city’s unpopular leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, made the appointment in his capacity as the Chancellor of HKU.

Li’s appointment comes a few months after a prominent law professor and human rights advocate, Johannes Chan, was barred from taking up the pro-vice-chancellor position, one of the university’s top posts.

One of the protest organizers and legislator representing the Education field, Ip Kin-yuen, said Chan’s rejection and Li’s appointment reflected the government’s desire to control HKU.

“The government is trying to get rid of some person in the university. And now it is imposing some other person into the university. I think it is quite clear the government is very keen to make sure that the university is not opposing the government,” Ip said.

The former British colony has a high degree of autonomy denied in mainland China by its Communist leaders, including academic freedom.

But HKU’s Head of School of Humanities, professor of philosophy and a member of the governing council, Timothy O’Leary, said he was anxious that Hong Kong’s academic freedom is being eroded.

“What’s happening is a slow undermining and erosion of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. And we’re afraid that will continue to get worse unless we take a stand.”

Protesters marched with placards reading “we don’t need a Communist party secretary in our university.”

A third-year student studying law in HKU, Callum Phillips, said he was worried the university’s reputation as one of the top universities in Asia would be in jeopardy.

“I feel more upset actually. I feel like you’re taking the reputation of an institution which has been so great for so long – it’s been a pillar of democracy and liberalism and progression – and it’s being shrank into a political mess,” Phillips said.

The government said in a statement released after the protest on Sunday (January 3) its decision was based on the merits of the individuals. It also stated that the system of having the Chief Executive as the Chancellor “has been operating effectively over the years and there is no interference with academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”

Many university students and some of its staff played a big role in the 79 days of pro-democracy protests in 2014 that saw hundreds of thousands of protesters blocking major highways on its peak.

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