Growing controversy over the government appointment of a top academic at the University of Hong Kong has sparked calls for an inquiry, amid reports that the city's leadership interfered to prevent the appointment of a pro-democracy candidate for the job.
Law professor and democracy activist Johannes Chan, who is among the candidates for the post of pro-vice-chancellor called on Friday for a review of the government's role in higher education in the former British colony.
Local media reports have accused the territory's embattled chief executive C.Y. Leung of telling members of the university's council not to elect Chan, who is a member of the Hong Kong 2020 group campaigning for greater democracy.
"The government has considerable power over governance of tertiary institutions, and it doesn't seem right," Chan told an event at Cambridge University. "For example, why should the chief executive be the chancellor of all [public] universities?"
"Universities should be accountable because they are publicly funded, but there are different ways of accountability, and that is something that we have to think of, about the system itself," said Chan, who declined to comment on the controversy surrounding his potential candidacy.
Concerns over government interference in academic freedom first surfaced last month 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.
Chan has since been 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.
Leung's office has denied any involvement in the selection process for pro-vice-chancellor, but senior government adviser Sophia Kao has admitted discussing the appointment with unidentified persons, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
Former Ming Pao newspaper editor Kevin Lau Chun-to and lawmaker Dennis Kwok, have also repeated the claims of official interference in the selection process.
Educational sector lawmaker and university board member Ip Kin-yuen now plans to launch an investigation into the allegations of political interference into the pro-vice-chancellor recruitment process via the city's Legislative Council (LegCo).
"If the council members received such calls in the selection process ... it is very serious," Ip told government broadcaster RTHK on Friday. "It risks destroying academic freedom and the reputation of the university within a minute," he said.
Teachers' union leader Fung Wai-wah agreed.
"If this is true, then this is a serious [interference] into the autonomy of the university ... including academic freedom, because it will set such an atmosphere that maybe many of the academics will resist [giving] their comments, and they will fear ... pressure from higher levels, and they will not speak the truth," Fung told RTHK.
Political affairs commentator Camoes Tam said the pro-Beijing Wen Hui Po newspaper had no business involving itself in the internal decisions of the University of Hong Kong.
"[The trouble is that] all of the board members were appointed by the chief executive, because all of Hong Kong's universities are publicly owned," Tam said.
"Why would C.Y. Leung behave in such a way? Of course this is linked to what the central government, behind the scenes, thinks about it,"
"I think the central government's opinion is clear: Hong Kong's university students are an unruly bunch who occupied Central for 79 days, so of course they're going to use every means possible to rein in the little demons," Tam said.
"In particular, they will target anyone who takes an indulgent attitude towards their behavior, and another is to disband the entire Hong Kong Federation of Students," he said.
According to an Aug. 31 framework laid out by Beijing's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), only candidates vetted by a pro-Beijing committee will be allowed to run for the territory's top executive post in 2017, although all five million eligible voters will get a vote.
Occupy Central campaigners, many of whom are students, and pan-democratic politicians have dismissed the plan as "fake universal suffrage," because pan-democratic candidates are unlikely to be selected.
Pan-democratic lawmakers have threatened to veto the government's electoral reform bill in LegCo in a bid to win further concessions on universal suffrage, although the government has ruled out any such deals.
Meanwhile, vendors at Hong Kong's biggest Lunar New Year Fair at Victoria Park, which specializes in peach blossoms, mini-mandarin trees, and other gifts for the Year of the Goat on Feb. 19, have been selling protest-themed items.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China is selling T-shirts with messages calling for a reappraisal of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, as well as "Goddess of Democracy" statues.
Other vendors offered cushions poking fun at Leung and his wife, while police across the border in Guangdong province seized some 8,000 rolls of toilet paper and another 20,000 packages of tissues containing unflattering images of Leung printed on them.
The Hong Kong Democratic Party had planned to sell them at a Chinese New Year market in Hong Kong, its vice-chairman Lo Kin-hei told reporters.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin and Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.