Last week Commercial Radio broadcast a tape of Arthur Li urging the Council of the University of Hong Kong not to appoint Johannes Chan. The government’s media defenders swung swiftly into action. “No smoking gun or incriminating remarks,” said the SCMP’s Alex Lo… “We know all this already,” he concluded. In the Standard, Mary Ma said the content of the leaks had “already been reported”, and “the bomb is more of a dud.”
Just a minute. The content of the leaks had certainly been reported already. It was reported by Billy Fung, the student representative on the Council, now much-abused for breaching the council’s confidentiality. But we did not “know all this already” because we were also told of Arthur Li’s response, which was that “Billy Fung is a liar.” So those of us who supposed that Professor Li might approach normal standards of integrity and truthfulness in public life were left with two conflicting stories. It seems we are now to conclude that, at least as far as Mr Lo and Ms Ma are concerned, Professor Li’s rebuttal of the initial leak was of no significance at all. They did not believe it. Professor Li now says that when he said Mr Fung was a liar he meant that he had breached the confidentiality rule.
But that is not what his hearers would have understood by the remark. The normal and natural meaning of the words was that Mr Fung’s version of events was erroneous. I realise that Professor Li is a serial foot-in-mouth artist who is, as Ms Ma tactfully put it, “not the type to embarrass easily”. But it seems even his warmest supporters do not place much faith in what he says. This seems rather a disadvantage in a university councillor, let alone a council chairman.
But of course the university has no voice in the selection of its council chairman, which is a matter for the government. I share the pessimism of those who see no real prospect of local universities either shaking off their government appointees or divesting themselves of the automatic Chief Executive-Chancellor. But this seems to be taking the wrong approach anyway. The government has a legitimate role in appointing people to university councils, and indeed to many other bodies. The question is not whether there is a justifiable right to appoint, but whether that right is being misused.
The answer to the second question is yes. Leung Chun-ying was the first Chief Executive to recruit a politically appointed assistant for the specific purpose of polluting the government nomination machinery with politics. The government appoints hundreds of people to all kinds of courts, councils and advisory bodies. These appointments should be made on merit with a view to keeping up the quality of the deliberations of the bodies concerned.
Instead they are being used as a political reward system, and a sort of social security for superannuated members of the pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. This is a drastic change for the worse which was never publicly acknowledged, defended or explained. I expect it was the Liaison Office’s idea. It is no wonder that our government has a tin ear for public sentiment. It spends too much time listening to its friends tell it how wonderful it is. This is a chorus in which the local media are increasingly willing to join. This is a recipe for long-term problems. If you can’t get any attention from the government without starting a riot, then riots there will be.