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The University of Hong Kong’s academic freedom crisis: A blot on its coat of arms

By Alvin Y.H. Cheung.

The Council of the University of Hong Kong will meet later this month (on 29 September) – its first meeting since the HKU alumni overwhelmingly voted that the Council should approve the appointment of former law dean Johannes Chan to the position of pro-vice-chancellor. Much has already been said about the crisis of academic freedom HKU faces. In an op-ed in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, veteran journalist Ching Cheong estimated that the Party mouthpieces Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao alone launched a fusillade of 349 articles targeting the former law dean between November 2014 – when rumours first surfaced that Chan would be appointed pro-vice-chancellor – and September, 2014.

What has perhaps been lost in all the ad hominem attacks and the mirth-making over Lo Chung-mau’s allegedly fake falls however, is what HKU – and Hong Kong’s academic institutions more broadly – should stand for.

veteran journalist Ching Cheong

Veteran journalist Ching Cheong. Photo: HKFP.

The HKU coat of arms – its heraldry – is a good starting point. The very use of a coat of arms is in itself emblematic. The University was granted a shield and motto by the College of Arms – the British body responsible for creating and registering coats of arms – shortly after its foundation; it was granted a full coat of arms in 1984, the year that the Joint Declaration was signed and shortly after the 70th anniversary of HKU’s establishment.

Heraldry has a lengthy history in Europe, dating back to the Middle Ages; their use, originally confined to nobility, has since been extended to individuals and institutions deserving of the honour. The conferral of a full coat of arms on HKU over thirty years ago was, in its way, as much a declaration of faith in the future of Hong Kong as the Joint Declaration.

Beyond its mere existence, however, HKU’s coat of arms – like all heraldry – is laden with symbolism.

hku

The University of Hong Kong coat of arms. Photo: HKU.

The Shield

We begin with the shield – the most familiar part of the coat of arms. The gold lion against a red background is a reference to the coat of arms of England, but beneath it is an open book against a background of blue and green – a reference to the University’s location on Hong Kong Island, and an allusion to the adaptation of English norms to the Hong Kong context. The open book is a common feature of coats of arms of European universities, such as that of the University of Oxford. Its use in the HKU shield reflects its place in, and the mission it shares with, the global academic community – a mission made explicit by HKU’s mottos.

The Mottos

The Chinese and English mottos – with the Chinese motto bearing pride of place – are also familiar.  The Chinese phrases “明德” (“to manifest virtue”) and “格物” (“to investigate things”) have their origins in Confucian ideals of learning. The Latin motto “Sapientia et Virtus” (“wisdom and virtue”) has its own connections with antiquity. The use of Latin harks back to the Classical era, as well as the centuries of scholarship that flow from the study of Greek and Roman civilisation – indeed, the very name “university” is borrowed from Latin.  The use of both English and Latin mottos reflects HKU’s connections to both Chinese and Western traditions of higher learning – including a dedication to empirical enquiry and concern with social affairs.

HKU main building

University of Hong Kong main building. Photo: HKU

Other features: Crest and ‘Supporters’

The other features of the full coat of arms also reflect the University’s connection with both Chinese and Western traditions. The lion and open book again make an appearance in the crest – this lion wearing a jade collar. The shield’s supporters are a lion and dragon – a clear reference to the combination of East and West – both wearing jade collars and standing atop mountains, a reference to the University’s location.

HKU: lessons from heraldry

Perhaps the most important lesson to take from HKU’s heraldry is that it represents a connection to university values and a wider tradition of learning. The very idea of a university – a self-governing body of teachers and students – shares its origins with heraldry, in Medieval Europe. The current debate over HKU’s institutional autonomy – and the increasingly-overt signs of political interference with the process of appointments – represents a direct attack on all of the values embodied in the university coat of arms.

When the Council next meets on September 29, they would do well to ponder the meaning of the crest that overshadows them in the council chamber – and the connection with global academic tradition that they are placing in jeopardy.

Alvin Y.H. Cheung is an HKU alumnus and non-practising barrister.

The University of Hong Kong's academic freedom crisis: A blot on its coat of arms