Project Citizens Forum - Academic Freedom and University Autonomy: Opening remarks (Mr. TL Tsim)

Project Citizens Foundation

Project Citizens Forum - Academic Freedom and University Autonomy

Opening remark (23.01.2016)

Tsim Tak Lung

Welcome to today’s Forum on University Autonomy and Academic Freedom organized by the Project Citizens Foundation.

Our Forum today features four invited speakers and four concerned groups.  After they have spoken, we will open the discussion to the floor and you are all welcome to join in at the Q & A session chaired by Mr. Cheung Yuk Tong, our Vice Chairman.

I am the Chairman of Project Citizens Foundation, but I don’t have a Ph. D.  Many people consider me a nice guy, just like Professor Johannes Chan.

Every time I look at Professor Chan, our first speaker, I am reminded of what Jane Austin said in her novel Emma of the hero of the story, Mr. Knightley.  She described him as “not one in a hundred men with ‘gentleman’ written so plainly across them.”

It is easy to get a Ph. D.  There is this place called Life Long College in Hong Kong.  It can be quickly done.  You can even back date it, I’m told.

Members of the audience, you have done us proud in attending our Forum today.  Perhaps some of you do not have a Ph. D. either.  But to us at the Foundation, you are all nice guys, because you care about academic freedom and care about university autonomy.

I am sorry to say, though, that “nice guys finish last” – that is, unless if we stick together and fight the good fight.  That is why we must join hands to defend Hong Kong’s time-honoured core values and way of life.  That is why our Foundation believes in doing something, because it is not enough to just hold on to your strong convictions.  You must act and support the people who have been doing the work of defending Hong Kong’s cherished values on you behalf.

There are too many bad guys in this world.  As our adversary at the Convocation Dr. Pang said, do you know how many shits come from his group?  I welcome his self-incriminating words.  He has given us a perfect example of what a rhetorical question is.  Such questions don’t need answering because they are normally greeted by derision and hearty laughter.  Like the comment from a legislator that the abducted Mr. Lee Bo was going into China of his own volition, in a speed boat bound for Chinese brothels on the other side of the border.  As if we didn’t have enough of those in Causeway Bay!

In the last century, a famous German scholar by the name of Friedrich A. Hayek wrote a world changing book called The Road to Serfdom. We believe to deny Hong Kong’s universities the right to university autonomy, to reduce, limit and crush Hong Kong people’s right to our freedoms is to push us on to “The Road To Serfdom”.

In our first Forum last year, we tried to highlight the precarious nature of press freedom.  Little did we know that academic freedom and university autonomy would so quickly also come under unprecedented threat.  And now, we are witnessing, in front of our very eyes, a direct affront to habeas corpus.

A so-called “powerful agency” can put you on a boat bound for China, voluntary of course, which can side-step Hong Kong’s immigration department and without the knowledge of the Hong Kong police.  The said publisher disappeared on 30th December and the Hong Kong stock market has not stopped falling since.  The stock market rebounded a little yesterday but the Hang Seng Index still lost over 3,000 points.  But this is not yet the end of the story, as the Hong Kong Government is bent on limiting creative freedom and the freedom of expression.  The bill has just had its second reading in Legco two days ago.  If the freedom of the press, the freedom to publish, academic freedom and personal freedom are all falling by the wayside, will it be long if religious freedom also follows suit?  And will the return of “patriotic education” be far behind?  Must all taxi drivers pass a putonghua test to even get a taxi driver’s licence, as has been suggested in the film Ten Years?  The people of Hong Kong were promised fifty years of no change after the handover; how come we have had all these changes foisted upon us thick and fast?

The Central Liaision Office’s Head of Legal Department Professor Wang asked our Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang a very interesting question the other day.  He asked,

“Why is it that Hong Kong has changed so?  Before the handover, Hong Kong inherited the political conservatism of the British, the rule of law was in place, the people were civilized and rational, principled and well mannered, they respected due process; they were not radical, and rarely violent.  People lived harmoniously and were content with their lot.  Hong Kong was then a stable and harmonious society.  The people of Hong Kong gave the impression that they were gentlemanly, tradition minded, conservative and civilized.  Regrettably, over the years, this political philosophy and orientation of conservatism and incrementalism have been discarded without pause.”

Professor Wang went on to ask, “Why have people not embraced the mainstream British heritage of conservatism in their political philosophy?  Why have they not learned and followed the British tradition of political culture?”

When I heard this, I looked at Professor Johannes Chan and I could not help but  think to myself, “What Wang wants is Professor Chan! ” Johannes Chan is precisely Professor Wang’s idea of a gentleman who exudes the best tradition of British governance.” (and mine too).  And so this begs the question - why have they done this grave injustice to him? ”

Very subtly, Jasper Tsang tried to answer Professor Wang’s question with a question of his own.  His piece is entitled “So who forced Hong Kong down this route?’  This, too, is a rhetorical question.  Who has pushed us into this corner? Who indeed ?  If over 90% of the academics, administrators, students and alumni are opposed to the appointment of a certain person as the University’s Council Chairman, but the appointment was made all the same, who should really be responsible for the confrontation which followed? Who indeed? 

In the mid 1960’s, Singapore was headed for serious trouble but Lee Kwan Yew took expert advice and reversed himself.  He decided not to dismantle the British colonial institutions and ran with them instead.

A former Chairman of China’s CPPCC Li Ruihuan had warned people who take over an old teapot not to wash away the tea stains.  But his words of wisdom went unheeded by the people who made policy for Hong Kong.  And this, what we now see, is the result. 

So, what is a university?

A university is a place where you can enjoy freedom of thought, of speech, of research, of teaching, of movement, of publication and of innovation at the point in your life when you are most receptive - to enquire, discuss, share and learn.

A university’s academics are the servants of knowledge, just as missionaries are the servants of god and civil servants are the servants of the public.  Academics are not servants of a political party or servants of a government.  They do not have to listen to or follow government instructions.  And they should not be subject to or bound by arbitrary rules imposed by a government, especially one that is not elected.  If you regard yourself as a self-respective academic, you cannot and should not subject yourself to the whims of the rich and powerful.  If you are, then you cannot any longer call yourself a servant of knowledge; you’ve become a servant of the powers that be.  If that is what you’ve become, how can you with hand on heart tell your students they must think for themselves and keep an independent mind?

A university is the cradle of knowledge, it is also the hand maiden.  This is where we learn those useful values and concepts that we have carried within us to this day.  The academics and scholars are some of the best minds of our land.  What they are interested in researching and the importance of the opinions they hold may not be readily understood by the likes of us.  It follows, therefore, that these academic pursuits should also not be controlled by the likes of us.

The British are very intelligent in the way they deal with professional people.  Doctors are regulated by their peers and academics are regulated by their own.  That is why British universities have always enjoyed university autonomy.  They are what Professor Lian, our second speaker, calls “professor - led universities”. Universities need funding, but universities should not be controlled by their purse strings.  The British, in their wisdom, founded a mechanism called the University Grants Committee which acts as a buffer between the government which provides the money and the university which spends it for the benefit of the community – for the education of our future leaders.  Universities are regulated by their own ordinances; they do not come under the purview of the Education Department whose authority only goes so far as Form 6 and post-secondary vocational training colleges.  Regrettably, after 1997, the UGC has turned itself from a buffer to an agent of the government.

Von Hayak said in his book, “I think what is needed is a clean set of principles which enables us to distinguish between the legitimate fields of government activities and the illegitimate fields of government activities.”

This is what we should be doing now.  We want government to understand that some things do not fall within the legitimate fields of government activities, that the power of government should not be abused, that even the power of government must be subject to certain limitations.

University autonomy and academic freedom belong to the illegitimate fields of government activities.  So we are asking you to keep your hands off.

Hong Kong has a well developed civil society. In a civil society, many things are self-regulating.  There is no need for government to step in.

The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville said, “I should have loved freedom, I believe, at all times, but in the time in which we live I am ready to worship it.”

I echo his sentiments.  I also wish to remind everybody present on this occasion that “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” To be vigilant is to join hands – to protect the freedoms we’ve always enjoyed.  The Project Citizens Foundation stands for that.