Talking to some Hong Kong residents, you might think their territory was under siege. Their press is censoring itself. Its judiciary is required to be "patriotic." Even their mother tongue, Cantonese, is under assault, some believe, from Mandarin speakers to the north.

Now add academic freedom to that list, as pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps have rushed to take sides in an ongoing battle over leadership of the territory's oldest institution of higher learning, the University of Hong Kong.

The dispute came to a climax on the night of Jan. 26, when students surrounded a meeting of the university's governing council. "Dialogue, dialogue," they shouted, jostling with police and demanding to speak to newly appointed council chairman Arthur Li. He refused.

"Mr. Arthur Li was protected by the police and sneaked away," says student leader Yvonne Leung. "So we could feel that he is not that sincere to have a talk with the students."

Leung opposes the appointment of Li, who is pro-Beijing, and led students in a one-week boycott of classes starting Jan. 20, to push for more democratic university governance. In 2014, she was a student leader in the Umbrella Movement, pro-democracy protests that occupied key streets in Hong Kong for nearly three months.

Li chastised the students and said they were acting irrationally. "Sadly, these small number of students are rather like someone who has taken drugs, who's been poisoned by drugs," he told reporters at a Jan. 28 press conference. "And they've been manipulated."

They were manipulated, Li alleged, by Hong Kong's liberal opposition parties, which want more democracy and less interference from Beijing. Li singled out Leung for criticism, pointing out that she was previously an intern with the leader of the opposition Civic Party.

Links To Beijing

In an interview at the student union, Leung points out that Li is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the Communist-controlled government's top advisory body. "You can see the one who is politically controlled," she says. "It must be him and not the students."

Li, 70, is the British-educated heir of the founder of the Bank of East Asia, Hong Kong's third-largest bank. In addition to chairing the Hong Kong University governing council and sitting on the CPPCC, he also sits on Hong Kong's cabinet. His critics accuse him of a high-handed management style, for which they have dubbed him "King Arthur."

Li is a political ally of Hong Kong's top leader, Chief Executive C. Y. Leung, who appointed Li to his job leading the university governing council. Leung, in turn, was selected by a pro-Beijing electoral college of Hong Kong elites.

As Hong Kong's chief executive, Leung serves as the ex officio chancellor of every university in the territory and has the power to appoint the members of governing councils which make university policy. The system is a vestige of British colonial rule.

Timothy O'Leary, a university governing council member and humanities professor is pushing to change this arrangement. "At the very least, it leaves them open to the appearance of political interference," he says. "And even the appearance is bad, because that does cause people to begin to engage in self-censorship."

Critics howled political interference back in September, whenLi helped block human rights scholar and law faculty head Johannes Chan from a top university management post because of Chan's ties toBenny Tai, a fellow law professor and a leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong published a slew of articles declaring Chan a "mediocre scholar" who was unfit to lead.

Threats To Hong Kong's Freedoms

O'Leary says the debate about university autonomy comes amid fears that Hong Kong's basic freedoms, including freedom of the press and judicial independence, are under threat.

"Those different kinds of freedom are all connected," he says. "If you lose one, you're going to lose them all. 'Academic freedom,' people will say, 'we haven't yet lost it, so what are you worried about?' The point is it's under threat."

Hong Kong citizens have successfully organized and resisted measures that Beijing and Hong Kong's government have tried to impose on them, O'Leary says. They were able to stop a draconian security law in 2003 and a 2012 school curriculum that some critics considered pro-Communist.

But the biggest protest of all, the Umbrella Movement, failed to win Hong Kong people the right to elect their own leaders or nominate political candidates. And that may be fueling pro-democracy activists' feeling of urgency now about the University of Hong Kong.

The school's governing council has said it will form a panel to discuss reforming its governance structure. The students want a clear timetable, but O'Leary urges them to give the panel time to work.

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