Why is Peter Mathieson so controversial?

Three months into his term as Vice-Chancellor (VC), Peter Mathieson has received much criticism, particularly regarding the slow and ineffective measures taken in response to recent UCU industrial action. He was also criticised in his previous post as VC at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) for failing to sufficiently protect freedom of expression.

In a recent HKU staff survey, 78 per cent of respondents expressed that Mathieson had not “effectively protected academic freedom.”

However, only 31 per cent of HKU staff members responded to this survey. In fact, some spoke highly of Mathieson. Philosophy professor at Hong Kong University, Timothy O’Leary, held that “he is a very strong academic defender of freedom of speech for students and staff of the university.”

What is less known in Edinburgh though, and what many Hong Kongers have speculated for a while now, is that the Chinese government may have been interfering with the Hong Kong education system without consent or approval from the public. It is thus unsurprising that some have sympathised with Mathieson, especially after Beijing officials meeting with Hong Kong principals and teachers was viewed by some as an attempt on the part of Beijing to interfere in the Hong Kong education system. However, Kevin Yeung, Secretary for Education, has asserted that he does not believe these meetings will affect education in Hong Kong.

Mathieson has also sparked controversy after signing a statement alongside seven other government-funded Hong Kong universities. The statement read: “We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities.” At the time, some HKU students, staff members and pro-independence groups, felt that this was a breakdown of academic freedom.

Mathieson eventually clarified that the term “abuse” was in reference to particular instances; one such instance being a time where some university students had celebrated the suicide of a ‘pro-Beijing’ top official’s son.

Despite Mathieson’s clarifications, the controversy from signing the joint statement has made it riskier than ever to discuss independence on Hong Kong campuses. Perhaps Mathieson knew this would happen and proceeded anyway, because he did not have a say in academic freedom to begin with. Maybe, regardless of their political views, these universities were pressured to sign in fear of opposing the Chinese government.

After all, Mathieson is not the only VC to step down from his position this past year. In January, Joseph Sung, the VC of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, stepped down five months before the end of his term and current VCs Timothy Tong Wai-Cheung and Tony Chan Fan-Cheong of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology respectively, have also announced their resignations by the end of 2018. It is hardly coincidental that half of all government-funded universities in Hong Kong are losing their VCs after what have been six politically turbulent years for the city.

In 2014, up to 50,000 civilians, mostly students, took over the streets in protest of the lack of genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong Chief Executive elections. Police fired tear gas at citizens who could only protect themselves with umbrellas. This increased the people’s dissatisfaction with authorities, and led to the coinage of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’.

In late 2015, 5 Hong Kong-based booksellers were abducted, later to be found in custody of the Chinese government, presumably for publishing hypersensitive information about top-officials. Though 4 have returned, one remains detained even now. The daughter of the final detainee, Angela Gui, is a Swedish civilian and recent University of Warwick graduate, last reported to be living in the United Kingdom. She told the Telegraph newspaper that even in the UK, she is being closely watched by Chinese authorities.

Image: Neil Hanna

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The Student Newspaper 2016