Chaos erupted on the University of Hong Kong campus again last week as angry students besieged a governing council meeting, even though its members had agreed to review the institution's governance after a stormy year.
Hundreds of student protesters gathered last Tuesday at the Sassoon Road campus in Pok Fu Lam, refusing to let new council chairman Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson leave the building.
"Conversation!" they yelled, demanding talks with them. The mob stormed the venue over an apparent misunderstanding that there would be no immediate review, but they were kept well away from the meeting room.
Police Tactical Unit officers were deployed to help council members leave. One female employee was injured and sent to hospital.
The council agreed to appoint Terry Au Kit-fong, chair professor of psychology, as the interim pro-vice-chancellor for academic staffing and resources.
Meanwhile, an urgent meeting among HKU staff to discuss whether to support students' call for a class boycott had to be cancelled due to a surprisingly low turnout - which could reflect a lack of support for the cause, the South China Morning Post has learned. This emerged as students decided on Sunday night to temporarily suspend their boycott over the appointment of Li as HKU council chairman and their call for a review of the institution's governing structure.
HKU was the centre of a divisive and emotional dispute throughout last year. Former education secretary Arthur Li, nicknamed "the Tsar", was appointed by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in December despite strong opposition from many students and alumni. Li's critics saw him as high-handed and unfit for the chairman's role.
Li's appointment came after the council's widely criticised decision to reject the candidacy of Johannes Chan Man-mun, who was recommended by a search committee for the pro-vice-chancellorship. Li was one of the council members who spoke strongly against Chan's promotion.
Vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson said he and Li had agreed to meet the student representatives within the next fortnight, and that he supported the council decision to set up the review committee after the release of the University Grants Committee's consultancy report on governance.
In a press release, HKU said the council had "unanimously agreed" to set up a review panel to study the governance of the institution and to receive views from the public.
Were students manipulated?
Two days after Li and other council members were trapped for hours by hundreds of students demanding a review of the governing body's structure, he called a press conference to hit out at them.
"Sadly, this small number of students are rather like someone who's taken drugs," Li said last Thursday. "And they've been manipulated." He named the Civic Party as the culprit, saying it had "poisoned" the students' minds and was responsible for political interference. To back his claim, Li noted that Civic Party heavyweight Audrey Eu Yuet-mee was at the Tuesday siege - which she denied.
Li was also suspicious about the participation of HKU student leader Yvonne Leung Lai-kwok, who had worked as Civic Party lawmaker Alan Leong Kah-kit's intern.
Li also pointed to the presence of radical lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung's assistant and other pan-democrats at the rowdy student protest.
The students denied being controlled by any politician and said Li had "impaired mutual trust". The Civic Party denied involvement and demanded Li apologise.
Mathieson, who was previously seen as sympathetic to the students' grievances, continued with the harder line he has taken since last Tuesday.
He said he did not know which parties were at the protest because he did not understand much Cantonese, but he asked people to trust Li's judgment.
Li accused student union president Billy Fung Jing-en, who also sits on the council, of inciting a "riot" by sending a "false message" by phone to protesters. Li said Fung claimed that the council had declined to start a review into university governance, when in fact it had unanimously agreed to go ahead with it.
"[Fung] is a liar. He gave the undertaking of confidentiality and he immediately broke it," Li said.
Threat of legal action
Lawmaker Leong, whose Civic Party was accused of manipulating HKU students, said he would consider taking legal action against his accuser.
During an RTHK programme last Friday morning, Leong said that if many people urged his party to take legal action, he would consider doing so. But he said he personally did not think a lawsuit was appropriate, since libel cases took too long to resolve.
Council member and HKU student union president Fung said on the same programme that he never signed the confidentiality agreement Li accuses him of breaking. Fung said he did not agree that council members should keep what was discussed during meetings confidential. Fung also denied Li's accusation that he had sent a "false message" to protesters by claiming the council had declined to start a review of university governance when members had actually agreed to go ahead with one. He said the issue was that the students wanted a review panel set up immediately. The council only agreed to set up such a body later, he added.
HKU alumni concern group convener Ip Kin-yuen, who was present at Tuesday night's siege, said he heard students reading out Fung's message that the council had decided not to set up a panel immediately. Ip said Li had twisted Fung's message and should apologise to him.
'Listen to the kids'
SCMP senior editor Yonden Lhatoo sees the latest outbreak of youth outrage at HKU as a message the government should listen to.
"[The younger generation's] growing rebelliousness here in Hong Kong is on full display, and the authorities are at a loss as to how they should be pacified or punished," Lhatoo wrote. "Tuesday night's chaos at the University of Hong Kong was a prime example."
Lhatoo said that many of the older generation in the city see the students' behaviour as little more than the angst of youth. "The students have been dutifully condemned by everyone," Lhatoo wrote. "The first thing I heard from the 'oldies' the next day was the usual: 'What's wrong with young people these days? All they should be doing is studying. When we were students, we got on with it instead of worrying about who is in charge. They're so spoiled and entitled.'"
But Lhatoo said this was an unfair assessment of the situation. "[The new generation is] politically much more aware and empowered, as we saw in 2014 when they practically led the civil disobedience campaign under the Occupy Central banner to demand greater democracy," he wrote.
"The new generation is also well informed and idealistic. These youngsters want a better life in a city like Hong Kong, where social injustices ranging from the lack of upward mobility to the acute shortage of housing and the shamefully unequal distribution of wealth can leave you feeling frustrated and hopeless."
Lhatoo argued that instead of dismissing the demands of this generation, politicians and officials should be listening to them, since the youngsters would soon be the deciding voice on the future of the city.
"Let's also not forget that the silent majority of young people in this city are getting on with studies and business as usual, and many of them don't agree with the radical behaviour of their peers. They all deserve a voice."
"We want a detailed timetable and a face-to-face conversation with Li … Or else it would be just like an empty promise to deceive students."
Yvonne Leung, protest organiser
"I think it was a very unfortunate episode. I think it has damaged the university's reputation. I don't think it actually helps the cause you are aiming to promote."
HKU vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson
"Arthur Li was using political smearing to attack those the government believes to be political enemies."
Civic Party lawmaker Alan Leong
Number of protesters who marched against the appointment of Arthur Li Kwok-cheung on January 3, according to protest organisers
Meaning: decide the policy and actions of a group of people
Use it: It's the duty of the principal to govern the school.
Meaning: rule or control over something
Use it: The stability of a country depends on strong governance.
Meaning: willing to follow the orders of an authority figure
Use it: Teachers find that some classes are more governable than others.