Published: 20:30, April 17, 2024 | Updated: 10:53, April 18, 2024
Vindication of HKU’s leader an important victory for due process
By Quentin Parker

Hallelujah and hooray!

The deliberations are complete, and the results are in. The allegations and accusations against the vice-chancellor (VC) and president of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), Zhang Xiang, are unsubstantiated after what must be assumed to have been a fastidious and forensic examination of the evidence, given the perceived seriousness and interests of this case. I am confident that the experienced and senior panel convened to examine this issue followed due process.

And, indeed, what were the supposed “malpractices” that have so occupied HKU over the last six months? They concerned issues around the replacement of the VC’s 10-year-old official vehicle, the appointment of a headhunting company to oversee recruitment of a new pro-vice-chancellor and dean (rather than the appointments themselves, it seems), and the handling of donations from a Chinese mainland company. The investigation revealed no substantiated malpractice!

Indeed, as recent history has shown, I believe there is something rotten in parts of our tertiary education establishments. However, perhaps this latest egregious example can provide the catalyst needed to re-examine the processes whereby such damage is inflicted on ourselves. Ultimately, the whole saga became very important for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and our most excellent university’s operation and legitimacy. I believe the correct result has been obtained and also for the right reasons, but this must not be the end of the affair. This is given the reported reputational damage done to the VC and, by extension, to the HKU senior management team and, of course, to the interests and reputation of the university itself. Any tarnishing resulting from this sad affair needs to be vigorously buffed away as soon as possible to regain the luster and exemplary shine that is our true HKU.

Our great universities, with five in the global top 100, are a fantastic success story for the HKSAR. They are beacons of excellence in tertiary education across the entire Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and, indeed, globally, and their importance for our city cannot be overestimated. I believe it is essential they are protected from frivolous or, as shown here, unsubstantiated and damaging claims.

The adverse effects of this saga have already been reported on HKU. These include lost top international recruitments, delayed important programs, and the waste of enormous amounts of time and energy, never mind the personal stress on and costs to the VC himself, who remained unbowed and resolute the whole time, to his vast credit. It has, though, clearly been a debilitating case on both a personal and institutional level.

However, as the HKSAR government has just stated, the lessons must be heeded. I believe these lessons should be urgently and robustly enacted to prevent such mischievous and arguably malfeasant actions from occurring again. We have enough time to deal with external threats to our interests without self-inflicted nonsense and mudslinging, complicating and damaging things. This holds for all our great universities in the HKSAR, where similar sagas have unfolded over the last few years. Indeed, I know of no other jurisdiction on the planet where so many VCs have been pushed out or have left before their mandates expired. Amazingly, with this result, HKU has now rightly bucked the trend, decisively converting a misfortune into a blessing in disguise. Perhaps this will be an essential turning point for the future.

Part of our city’s broader appeal to the world rests on the excellence of our world-leading tertiary education system, which is almost without precedent for a city of our size. We attract academics, students, and even tourists from around the world to our halls of academe. Of course, these are also increasingly from the mainland, but at the highest levels of intellect and capacity, where there is a huge reservoir of interest.

To me, this whole affair smelled rotten right from the very beginning, given the nature and fashion of the process used to bring the allegations to the fore. They were clearly not grassroots nor natural cries for justice by victims or genuine witnesses of a corrupt system, but a coordinated attempt to destroy leadership at our top university by bad actors for their murky motivations, and not for the first time. The perpetrators used and abused an anonymous whistleblowing process that, to my mind, put too much faith in the protection of one side against the other and was not sufficiently self-reflective to require harder evidence of wrong-doing before commencing the once-started but difficult-to-stop wheels and machinations of the whistleblowing system once set in motion. At the moment, the mudslinging involved here can seemingly proceed with impunity, and when found to be unsubstantiated, no sanction may befall those flagrantly throwing the mud. This is a recipe for further future strife, so something needs to change somewhere for the betterment of all our universities and other institutes.

Nevertheless, I do believe in the importance and protection of genuine whistleblowers as the process itself has shown its worth many times over in bringing illegal and damaging actions to the light of day for essential scrutiny and accountability that needs to be retained. Of course, I am no legal expert; I leave that to my illustrious colleague Grenville Cross, but it always seemed that extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence of inappropriate action or intent before the process starts. A higher and more-precise bar should be set before embarking on such a potentially extremely damaging journey.

So here we are, the VC absolved and reputation retained. We must now move on confidently in the justice of the result, mindful of the lessons that must be learned, and clearer in the need to protect our great halls of academe.


The author is director of the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research.


The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.