Two Mainland Chinese Scholars Appointed HKU Vice-Presidents
Similar Background Raises Doubts about Homogeneity

PTU News Reporter

The University of Hong Kong (HKU)’s Council appointed Max Shen Zuojun and Gong Peng as vice-presidents for research and academic development on 27th October on a five-year term. Both scholars used to teach alongside president and vice-chancellor Zhang Xiang at the same university and their backgrounds are very similar.

HKU Alumni Concern Group convener Ip Kin-Yuen said in response that the appointment raises doubts about favouritism. He also asked the University to clarify whether Shen is a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and whether his background will affect his work at HKU. Shen made a statement shortly afterwards denying his CCP membership.

Similar Background of the Scholars

The appointees both came from Tsinghua University, where they were employed as Department Chair of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research and Department Chair of Earth System Science respectively. Both professors and the University’s president Zhang Xiang all earned their undergraduate degrees in mainland China. (Gong and Zhang both earned their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Nanjing University.) Shen and Gong had also been colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley for over a decade. The HKU Alumni Concern Group pointed out in their public letter that half of the higher management at HKU share the same background in this appointment and such homogeneity might lead to biases detrimental to the university’s development.

Shen’s Listing as CCP Member on Tsinghua University’s Website Deleted

After the appointment, the media discovered that Tsinghua University’s website previously listed Shen as a CCP committee member. Media reports raised doubts and concerns among the public. Ip said that CCP’s discipline might conflict with academic freedom. At the same time, he worries that Shen has other concerns that might be in discord with academic freedom and institutional autonomy during his administration at the university. The academic system in Hong Kong is different from that of mainland China. In Hong Kong, a strong emphasis is placed on academic freedom and academic achievement rather than ‘political correctness’. He urged the University to clarify the selection process of vice-presidents in order to dispel doubts amongst teaching staff and students at the University.

4,200 HKU Teachers and Students Petitioned in Opposition

Prior to the council’s meeting, the University’s students’ union (HKUSU) submitted a petition opposing the appointment signed by 4,200 teaching staff members, students, and alumni to the University’s registrar. HKUSU chairperson Edy Jeh demanded the university to delay the appointment and launch a conflict of interest investigation. The students’ union also demanded the council to disclose the list of candidates and its selection criteria, as well as Shen’s written declaration of his political background to students and the public in writing.

After the appointment, Shen published a statement through the university and denied his CCP membership. He claimed the listing on Tsinghua University’s website was an error on the University’s part when he became the Department Chair a few years ago. He also made a written statement to HKU’s council claiming his U.S. citizenship disqualifies him from being a CCP member.