Hong Kong: World-renowned microbiologist in parting shots as he quits role on council
By Tony Cheung, Jeffie Lam and Shirley Zhao
South China Morning Post
One of the city’s most respected medical academics is quitting the University of Hong Kong’s governing council with a parting shot against the institution’s decision makers as well as protesting students over the delayed appointment of a liberal scholar to a key managerial post.
Professor Yuen Kwok-yung said he quit because he was “incapable of dealing with the politics in the university council”, as HKU struggles to contain the fallout over the promotion of moderate pro-democracy scholar and former law dean Johannes Chan Man-mun to the post of pro-vice-chancellor.
Yuen’s resignation came days after an HKU council meeting descended into chaos on Tuesday, when a group of students stormed the body’s meeting room and urged councillors to stop delaying Chan’s appointment.
In a letter to the council, Yuen, who’s considered a neutral party in the controversy, had a message for angry students: “Though there are injustices in the system, we will not succeed to change it by verbal and physical violence. As such actions will only bring out the darkest side of human [nature] and open the door for the intrusion by Satan.”
But he also admonished the university’s top brass for the first time, suggesting they were not blameless: “Nevertheless, those in power also have the primary responsibility to face the dilemma and remove these injustices.”
He said his resignation was “related to many things … Even the storming was not caused by the students themselves, it was caused by the selection of a pro-vice-chancellor”.
“There were a lot of people outside [the university], a lot of political forces from outside trying to affect this situation, so in the end students barged into the meeting,” Yuen said.
He said he had been considering resigning in recent months, and only filed his resignation letter last night. He will stay on the council until a replacement is elected.
Yuen said that for decades, Hong Kong had been able to find a way out amid clashes of ideas, political beliefs and forces. But in recent years, it seemed the city had lost that ability.
“I don’t have any political training, but the council is a miniature version of society,” Yuen said. “In recent years, Hong Kong has been going through political turbulence, and politics was brought into the council … I think I should let a capable person take my place.
“Having reached this stage, I don’t have the ability to change what has happened, no ability to turn the conflict … into a positive thing. This is what a leader should do, but I don’t have that ability. I might as well go back and deal with infectious diseases and mucor spores instead.”
Mucor is a type of mould with six species, found in soil, plants, rotting fruit and manure.
In his resignation letter to the coumcil, Yuen said although there was “injustice in the system, we will not succeed to change it by verbal and physical violence”.
“Such actions will only bring out the darkest side of humans and open the door for intrusion by Satan. Nevertheless, those in power also have the primary responsibility to face the dilemma and remove these injustices,” he wrote.
HKU vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson said after a forum today that Yuen had insisted in leaving despite his efforts to persuade him to stay.
“I profoundly regret that he’s resigned,” Mathieson said. “He is a loss to the university council. I have enormous respect for Professor Yuen and I understand his feelings and his reasons.”
Mathieson said he did not think Yuen was powerless as he is a “highly influential and a very highly respected academic”. He said Yuen might have had negative feelings due to recent experiences.
“I don’t feel powerless,” Mathieson said. “I feel under pressure but that’s my job. I feel I’ve got to cope with that pressure.”
READ MORE: Hong Kong failing to solve conflicts under ‘one country, two systems’, top professor says after quitting HKU council
Mathieson would not describe the recent turmoil as a “management crisis” but major challenges the university is facing. He said he was confident that if all parties in the university worked together constructively the problems could be solved.
He reiterated that political pressure had always been a factor at universities, especially publicly-funded ones. He said the management team’s job was to take in views from all sides and make decisions best for the university.
Yuen followed postgraduate student representative Aloysius Wilfred Raj Arokiaraj out of the door, who yesterday confirmed he submitted a resignation letter to the council on July 3, three days after the body voted to delay Chan’s appointment.
During the storming of the council meeting on Tuesday, councillor Professor Lo Chung-mau injured his knee and Yuen accompanied him as he was taken to hospital.
Lo and Yuen are two of the four councillors elected to represent the university’s full-time lecturers.
In the aftermath of the storming, councillor Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and pro-Beijing newspapers described the episode as “Hong Kong Cultural Revolution”, referring to the 1966-76 turbulence when mainland Chinese students, known as Red Guards, persecuted and tortured intellectuals. Some historians believe that millions died in those 10 years.
But Yuen dismissed such comparisons.
“The Cultural Revolution was initiated by Mao Zedong, and people were tied up with ropes, thrown into the river [and drowned] … what happened on Tuesday was not initiated by Hong Kong’s leader and the nature was not as serious,” he said.
Yuen also suggested that the students’ storming was not conducive to solving the problem.
Yuen’s three-year term started in December 2012. He is one of the world’s premier virus fighters and was named an Asian hero by Time magazine for his work in fighting the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak. His team later helped track how the virus that caused Sars passed from bats to humans via civet cats.
He is also a member of the HKU research team whose recent breakthrough study has found two existing drugs offer the best hope of beating the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) coronavirus that has claimed hundreds of lives globally since its emergence three years ago.
Yuen and Arokiaraj’s resignations will leave the university council with 20 members, including Mathieson and 13 external members – six of which were appointed by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
Meanwhile, 15 ex-presidents of the HKU student union issued a joint statement on Thursday night, offering their support to students as they urged the HKU council to safeguard the university’s autonomy.
They said they regretted that Mathieson and 10 faculty deans had condemned the students’ protest on Tuesday.
“We think this is a righteous action of the students to safeguard the academic freedom and university’s autonomy. It might not be perfect but is still worthy of public support,” the statement read.
The former presidents also said the current composition of the HKU council had violated the principle of the university’s autonomy and offered room for government interference as only eight of the 23 members were staff and students of the university.
The signatories included Democrat Mak Hoi-wah, Cheung Yui-fai, executive committee member of the Professional Teachers’ Union, Laurence Tang Yat-long, member of the Basic Law Promotion Steering Committee and Yvonne Leung Lai-kwok, a former core member of the Federation of Students which co-led Occupy protests last year.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Ngo