It is for the University of Hong Kong to decide whether controversial academic Benny Tai Yiu-ting – who has been attacked by the authorities for recent remarks on independence for the city – is still suitable to teach, the education secretary said on Sunday.
Kevin Yeung Yun-hung was responding to calls from pro-establishment politicians and groups for the university to dismiss Tai – one of the leaders of the 2014 Occupy campaign – from his position as associate professor of law, after the controversial scholar touched a nerve with Beijing last month by suggesting in a seminar that independence could be one of the options for the city in a “ democratic China”.
“It is not up to me to decide whether he is suitable [to teach]. I believe the university would make a decision after thorough consideration,” Yeung said.
“Freedom of expression and academic freedom are beliefs that the government insists on. But at the same time, everyone understands that as Hong Kong is part of China, the notion of ‘Hong Kong independence’ is not in line with the Basic Law and the [Chinese] constitution.”
Asked at what point independence discussions would exceed the scope of academic freedom, Yeung said: “I believe everyone will study all the facts to determine whether it is an academic discussion, advocacy or promotion.”
His comments came a day after more than 1,000 people attended a rally outside the city’s legislature to condemn what they called an orchestrated campaign by authorities to curb free speech in Hong Kong with their attacks on Tai, who they said had been quoted out of the context.
The Hong Kong and central governments issued separate and unusually harsh statements accusing Tai of advocating separatism, after he suggested at an anti-Communist Party seminar in Taiwan last month that the city could “consider becoming an independent state”.
Video footage of the seminar showed Tai suggesting that different ethnic groups in China could exercise their right to self-determination and decide how they could link up with each other – through going independent, becoming part of a federal or confederation system – when the country became democratic.
A senior manager of HKU’s law faculty earlier told the Post that Tai, as a tenured associate professor, would not be affected by the controversy.
Pressure on the city to enact its own national security law – as required by Basic Law Article 23 – to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against Beijing was also mounting.
Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole deputy to the nation’s top legislative body, said on Saturday that the “suitable atmosphere” for the legislation was slowly forming as people were disturbed about Tai’s “daydreaming” about independence.
Former constitutional and mainland affairs chief Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, now a delegate to the National People’s Congress, said he did not believe the recent saga would accelerate the legislation, and advised the government to start after the next Legislative Council polls in 2020.
Tam said he did not think what Tai said was “academic research”, adding Beijing’s response was understandable given the scholar was not only a civilian but someone who had advocated the Occupy movement in 2014.
Tai, meanwhile, wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday that he not only feared free speech and academic freedom in Hong Kong would be curbed, but also one’s freedom of thought.
He called on Hongkongers to stay firm in the face of further suppression from Beijing by turning the city’s democratic movement to one which was against dictatorship.
“We need to remain hopeful as history has told us that no leader will never die, no regime will never fall and no system will never change,” Tai wrote.
“We need to ensure that we have people running for all the some 400 popularly elected seats in the 2019 district council elections.”