Crucial bit in HKU 'fake news' missing

Editorial | Mary Ma Jan 12, 2018
The irony for US President Donald Trump in attempting to shoot down as "fake news" reports that aren't to his liking is that he lends them credibility by doing so - and that goes for all bidding to follow in his footsteps.

So, when University of Hong Kong council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung branded, during an interview with ex-legislator-turned-radio-host Emily Lau Wai-hing, as "fake news" a local media report that the central government liaison office had been in touch with vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson and the heads of other universities, he was lending credibility to the report. Perhaps Li can be smarter next time.

Mathieson had assumed office in April 2014 for a five-year term. Understandably, it sparked intense speculation after he resigned in 2017, following a stormy year in which he was believed to favor a plan to promote pro-democracy academic Johannes Chan Man-mun to become a pro-vice-chancellor at the SAR's oldest and most prestigious university.

The proposal was scuttled, mainly due to Li's opposition.

Mathieson was in the eye of the storm then, criticized by some staff members and students for not being assertive in protecting academic freedom. Meanwhile, conservative hardliners slammed him for being lenient toward protesting students and lecturers.

In a pre-departure interview with the South China Morning Post, the Englishman was quoted as saying that the liaison office here had been advising him "all the time," and his resignation was partly due to uncertainty regarding his contract.

Mathieson reportedly said "the office takes an interest in education in Hong Kong, as in other affairs," and Li didn't discuss the prospect of a second contract with him, even though he was in the fourth year of the term.

What did he want to say? While it's open to interpretation, Li obviously took offense at the comments or else, he wouldn't have accorded them the big word "fake" - a term profusely used by Trump and promulgated by his subordinates in the White House.

If not for Li's "fake news" strike-back, I think the interview would have more likely than not been forgotten by the public.

It's juicy stuff and would have provoked a heated debate if the attack was made several years ago.

But it's overshadowed by the totally unexpected illegal structure scandal engulfing the newly installed Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah. It may sound ironic, but how the HKU saga unfolds could hinge on how the Cheng scandal evolves.

All in all, the crux of the issue isn't the contact between Mathieson and the liaison office, but what had been said during those sessions.

So, what had been said?

I wonder if Mathieson would be willing to disclose the conversations - just like the message that he texted to Li in response to Li's quiz over the news report.

Mathieson said the text message was for Li's eyes only, although Li read it out loud in a webcast anyway.

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January 2019