Pressure builds on elite Taiwan academy to strip HKU head of honorary title

2021.05.07

Pressure is mounting on a prestigious research academy in Taiwan to take away an academic honor bestowed on the head of the University of Hong Kong, for “abetting the erosion of academic freedoms.”

Leading scholars and legislators in Taiwan urged Academia Sinica to take action to stand by academic freedoms, a day after a group of well-known HKU alumni published an open letter asking the institution to revoke HKU Vice Chancellor Zhang Xiang’s title of academician.

Zhang was a “loyal soldier” of China’s Communist Party who suppressed dissenting views and promoted national education at the university, said Wu Rwei-Ren, an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Taiwan History.

Academia Sinica granted Zhang the academician title in 2012.

Critics say he has endorsed a plan to impose national education on all HKU students in the coming academic year. The university’s student union called him a “puppet of the regime.”

Days later, university management severed ties with the student union. They decided not to collect membership fees on behalf of the union, and to reclaim management rights over the union’s offices and other facilities.

Ho Chi-kwan, an Hong Kong activist now in Taiwan, said Zhang did not deserve to be called an educator or an intellectual as he had helped to crack down on the student union, whose members had been “pioneers of social movements” in the city over the past century.

The open letter was signed by some of the university’s most famous alumni, including Hong Kong democracy activists Alex Chow, Sunny Cheung and Brian Leung. Academia Sinica has responded by saying the title was a lifelong honor and any changes must be discussed by its convocation in accordance with the current mechanism.

Such mechanisms ought to be reformed and democratized, said Su Chiao-hui, a legislator of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan. Wan-yao Chou, a history professor of National Taiwan University, said: “The Academia Sinica must not hide anymore. Shouldn’t they face up to this case?”

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