Professor Peter Mathieson, currently the Vice-Chancellor of Hong Kong University (HKU), has told Scotland on Sunday the politicisation of higher education on the former British colony is “deeply regrettable”.
With student activists at his current university speaking out in favour of Hong Kong breaking away from China, Mathieson this month signed a statement opposing independence.
The statement, which was signed by nine other leaders of Hong Kong higher education institutions, has led to an angry reaction from independence supporters.
Calls for independence have been rising in recent years with activists, many of whom are students, arguing that Hong Kong is facing increasing Chinese interference.
Pro-independence posters have been appearing around universities. One institution, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has been criticised for removing independence banners.
The statement signed by Mathieson and others said: “We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities.
“All universities undersigned agree that we do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law.”
Activists claimed the first part of the statement was a criticism of public expressions in favour of independence, an interpretation disputed by Mathieson.
Julian Ho, a HKU graduate and last year’s editor of the Undergrad student magazine, said: “It is worrying and outrageous that Mathieson, who will soon become the principal of University of Edinburgh, considers discussion on independence as ‘abuse’ of freedom of speech.”
Mathieson said the first part of the statement was directed at specific instances of “hate speech”, one of which referred to a young man’s suicide and another suggesting the anniversary of 9/11 should be celebrated.
“I have at no time said that discussion of Hong Kong independence is an abuse of freedom of expression,” said Mathieson.
Ho maintains that Mathieson’s opposition to Hong Kong independence could prove problematic in Edinburgh when he moves to Scotland to replace Sir Timothy O’Shea.
“It is unavoidable that during Mathieson’s term in Edinburgh, there will be discussion on campus on Scottish independence. With this track record, it is questionable if he will uphold Edinburgh’s autonomy when the university is under pressure,” said Ho.
Mathieson said: “The second part of the statement restated a position that I and other universities have taken before, that as institutional leaders we do not support Hong Kong independence. We said nothing about the discussion thereof. Sometimes different political camps here exploit the same words or events to mean different things according to their own aims and wishes.”