Around 2,000 black-clad staff and students marched silently across the campus of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) on Tuesday in protest at what they say is political interference by Beijing in the governance of the university.
The protesters, wearing black clothing or academic gowns, stood silently for a few minutes on Tuesday, before gathering for speeches about what they said is an encroachment on academic freedom in the former British colony.
The protest was sparked by the rejection last week by a university committee of outspoken law professor and rights activist Johannes Chan for a top leadership post after his candidacy was leaked last November by pro-Beijing media.
Student union leader Billy Fung said Chan's rejection was "ridiculous."
"Students are concerned about the importance of our institutional autonomy and the ridiculous decision made by the council," Fung told the assembled protesters on Tuesday.
He said the student body is considering its response to the decision, which could include a judicial review or a student strike.
Protest organizer Timothy O'Leary said the decision by the committee, which voted on Sept. 29 by 12 votes to eight not to appoint Chan, who is a member of the Hong Kong 2020 group campaigning for greater democracy, was a political one.
"What we have seen very clearly is politically motivated encroachment on the autonomy of our university," O'Leary said in video footage posted to the website of government broadcaster RTHK.
"We all know the next thing that will happen is the undermining or encroachment on our academic freedom," he said. "Today we are here determined to say we will not allow that to happen."
The university said in a statement on Tuesday that it respects the freedom of its members to express their views.
"The University of Hong Kong is a place of liberty and diversity," the statement, posted on the university website, said. "We respect the freedom of University Members to express their views and participate in social affairs."
"Academic freedom and freedom of expression, including freedom of thought, of speech and of assembly, are core values of the University which we are determined to uphold and safeguard," it said.
Public debate needed
Yip Kin-yuen, who heads the "HKU Alumni Concern Group," said there should at least be public debate about the controversial decision.
"At the very least, [we] will set up a forum for discussion, and we will speak reasonably, in the hope that the committee will see reason too, and come out to speak to us," Yip told RFA ahead of the protest.
Civic Party chairman and HKU alumnus Audrey Eu said she was "extremely hurt and angry" at the decision by the committee to deny Chan the job of pro-vice-chancellor.
Kei Wing-wah, deputy professor at the university's institute of education, said he couldn't understand why the committee had ignored the advice of a specialist recruitment committee in turning Chan down for the job.
"As an academic, it's very painful to see such a smear attack on Johannes Chan, as well as this attempt to paint him as an example of hostile [foreign] political forces manipulating the University of Hong Kong, and HKU as some sort of hotbed of anti-communist sentiment," Kei said.
Chan was attacked by a pro-Beijing newspaper, which criticized his research record during his time as law dean at the university, based on a leaked research evaluation report.
The protests follow months of controversy around HKU, with local media reports accusing the territory's embattled chief executive Leung Chun-ying of telling members of the university's council not to elect Chan.
Chan had already spoken out against the amount of power exercised by Hong Kong's government over the governance of higher education institutions.
Concerns over government interference in academic freedom first surfaced last year when Leung hit out at a student magazine, Undergrad, for discussing issues of self-determination for Hong Kong, which was promised a "high degree of autonomy" under the terms of its 1997 handover to Beijing.
Leung's office has denied any involvement in the selection process for pro-vice-chancellor, but senior government adviser Sophia Kao admitted discussing the appointment with unidentified persons, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported at the time.
Former Ming Pao newspaper editor Kevin Lau and lawmaker Dennis Kwok have also repeated the claims of official interference in the selection process.
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" and the protection of its existing rights and freedoms.
But a growing willingness by Chinese officials and state bodies to make public statements on the city's internal workings has sparked fears that such autonomy may now be a thing of the past.
Last year, a decree by China's parliament governing 2017 elections for the next chief executive sparked the 79-day Occupy Central, or Umbrella civil disobedience movement which dismissed Beijing's electoral reform plan as "fake universal suffrage."
Last June, the city's Legislative Council voted the reform plan down in an embarrassing defeat for Chinese and Hong Kong officials.
Reported by Lin Jing and Wong Si-lam for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.