A prominent Hong Kong democracy activist vowed Wednesday to appeal his sacking by a top university as city leaders and education chiefs were accused of failing to defend academic freedoms under Beijing's tightening grip.
Law professor Benny Tai, 56, said he was fired on Tuesday by a disciplinary committee at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) because of being jailed last year for taking part in pro-democracy protests.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Tai said he would appeal against the university’s decision and consider launching a judicial review.
He also made a personal call to city leader Carrie Lam, a pro-Beijing appointee.
“Though I know this is a futile process, Carrie Lam cannot evade… her responsibility of infringing Hong Kong’s academic freedom,” Tai wrote, accusing Beijing of influencing the decision.
Tai is a leading figure within Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
A staunch non-violence advocate, he was jailed last year over his involvement in huge pro-democracy protests in 2014 that brought parts of the city to a standstill for weeks.
He was freed pending an appeal having served around two months of a 16-month sentence after being found guilty of conspiracy to cause public nuisance and inciting others to do the same.
Tai is often the target of vitriolic statements from China’s government, and the Liaison Office — which represents Beijing in the semi-autonomous city — released a statement late Tuesday calling him “evil”, and welcoming his removal.
Earlier in the month, the same office accused Tai of trying to foment a “revolution”.
In an email to AFP, a University of Hong Kong spokesperson said the institution was “committed to upholding and safeguarding academic freedom”.
“The university respects the freedom of university members in expressing their views, yet we believe freedom should come with responsibilities and should be exercised within the law,” it said.
Vibrant campus culture rattled
The sacking has sent a new chill through city campuses already rattled by Beijing imposition of a sweeping national security law last month that criminalises certain political views.
Joseph Chan, a political science professor at HKU, said Tai had become a “martyr”.
“This day will become a major stain in the history of the University of Hong Kong that cannot be washed away,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
He said the institution, had “sacrificed its reputation and it will not be able to hold its head high in the international academic community”.
Sophie Richardson, a China expert with Human Rights Watch, said international universities should now reassess their relationship with HKU.
“Calling all unis with ties to @HKU and claim to uphold #academicfreedom: time to speak up about this outrage,” she tweeted.
Joshua Wong, a prominent student activist who has also spent time in jail for leading protests wrote: “#Beijing now extends its reach to academic freedoms in #HK.”
The university, the oldest in the territory and regularly ranked one of the top three in Asia, has yet to issue a statement outlining why Tai was sacked and how it came to the decision.
Late Tuesday it released a statement saying it had “resolved a personnel issue concerning a teaching staff member”, but it did not name Tai or give any details, citing privacy.
Hong Kong has some of Asia’s best universities, aided by free-speech protections denied on the authoritarian mainland.
But Beijing has made no secret of its desire to overhaul schools and universities which it believes were partly responsible for the huge and often violent democracy protests that broke out last year.
China has called for more patriotic education, and the new security law has already prompted schools and libraries to pull some books.
Pro-Beijing figures have called for cameras in classrooms to monitor teachers.
Earlier this month AFP obtained an email to staff from an administrator at one HKU faculty warning there would be “zero-tolerance against politics or personal political views brought into classrooms”.
HKU said the email was private correspondence and did not constitute official policy.