On Tuesday, Hong Kong political activist and associate law professor Benny Tai was fired from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), a move which he labeled “the end of academic freedom” in the city.
Last year, Tai was convicted of public nuisance charges over his founding role in the 2014 Occupy Central protest, also known as the Umbrella movement, and sentenced to 16 months in prison. He currently remains free on bail while his case is pending appeal.
Since then, Tai has remained an outspoken pro-democracy activist and was recently accused of trying to incite a revolution by the Hong Kong-Beijing Liaison Office. Earlier this month, he was involved in the organization of the opposition primaries that attracted approximately 600,000 people despite being banned by authorities over social distancing regulations.
Tai’s criminal convictions had prompted an earlier review of his position by the university’s senate, which is made up of academic staff, where they decided that there were not enough grounds for his dismissal.
However, after conducting a yearlong investigation, the University of Hong Kong’s school council announced their rejection of the senate’s decision on Tuesday. The council, which is largely dominated by pro-establishment figures from outside the university, came to the decision after a majority of members, 18 to 2, voted in favor of Tai’s removal from the law faculty.
If Tai were to lodge an appeal, he would have to go through the university chancellor – Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam – or undergo a judicial review.
Shortly after the announcement of his dismissal, the Beijing liaison office praised the council’s decision, saying that they had punished “evil” and successfully upheld justice.
“Tai has used the sacred position of an educational institution to spread fallacies and confuse right and wrong, as well as promote illegal [activities] which had misled and poisoned a group of young people,” said a spokesman for the office.
The spokesman went on to state that Tai’s involvement in the Occupy Central movement and the opposition camp’s primary elections had “increased conflict in society and poisoned Hong Kong’s political atmosphere.”
Following his ousting, Tai wrote on Facebook that the decision was “made not by the University of Hong Kong but by an authority beyond the University through its agents,” saying that his termination “marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong.”
“Academic staff in education institutions in Hong Kong are no longer free to make controversial statements to the general public about politically or socially controversial matters,” he wrote. “Academic institutions in Hong Kong cannot protect their members from internal and outside influence.”
Tai also said that he would appeal the decision before Chief Executive Lam and that he is also consulting his legal team about potentially launching a judicial challenge against his dismissal.
“Though I know this is a futile process, Carrie Lam cannot evade from her responsibility of infringing [on] Hong Kong’s academic freedom,” he wrote in a separate Facebook post. “There is clear evidence that a power beyond the university has overturned the decision of the university.”
Supporters of Tai decried the University’s move to remove him from the faculty, saying that the decision was politically motivated.
“Arthur Li has completed his political mission, and Benny Tai has become a martyr to civil disobedience,” said Joseph Chan, a political-science professor at HKU, referring to the chair of the University council that ousted Tai. Li is also an adviser to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.
“The University of Hong Kong has sacrificed its reputation and it will not be able to hold its head high in the international academic community. This day will become a major stain in the history of the University of Hong Kong that cannot be washed away,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, another university professor, Shiu Ka-chun, who was convicted along with Tai last year, was also told on Monday that his contract to teach social work at Hong Kong Baptist University would not be renewed.
Nathaniel Lei, an undergraduate representative of the HKU council, expressed his dissatisfaction with the ruling, saying that it would contradict Beijing’s messages vowing to protect academic freedom under the national security law.
“If the university at this moment ignores the senate’s recommendations and fires Benny Tai, it would be equivalent to declaring that academic freedom is being repressed,” said Lei, speaking to local news outlet the Stand News.
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