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Peter Mathieson

Peter Mathieson


University of Hong Kong head ponders impact of protests

Though not generating the headlines it did a week ago, the standoff in Hong Kong between a pro-democracy movement and the government continues. University students are still boycotting classes. Occupy Central movement leaders have threatened to ratchet up acts of civil disobedience. The government has responded by threatening to call off planned talks with student leaders. Regardless of how the impasse is resolved, the events of this fall are likely to reverberate through the university system for years.

At 11 p.m. on 3 October, Peter Mathieson and Joseph Sung, the vice chancellors of University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, respectively, urged students at one of the main protest sites to remain calm and eschew violence. Protesters had set a midnight deadline for Hong Kong's chief executive, Chun-ying Leung, to resign. At 11:30, the government announced an agreement to hold talks with student leaders, who in turn shelved their call for Leung's resignation. Mathieson and Sung then held a midnight press conference welcoming the breakthrough. In a telephone interview with Science, Mathieson, who took the top job at HKU in April, recalled the experience of addressing the protesters and discussed the impact of the democracy movement on the university community. His remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.  

Q: Did you ever think calming protesters would be part of this job?

A: No I didn't. I did know about Occupy Central's plans before I was appointed. The way things have developed has defied everybody's predictions. It has been a question of having to adapt quickly. I had an idea I was coming to a job where this would be one of the challenges, and also the political elements of being a university president in Hong Kong are quite different to many other parts of the world.

It was a very tense evening [on 3 October]. I don't remember what I said. It was an intuitive, instinct-based decision to go. I asked my student president if it would help, and she thought it would so I said OK. I called Joseph [Sung] and we agreed to go together. We didn't have a script. It was really quite an emotional experience.

Q: How is this movement affecting University of Hong Kong and other universities?

A: Profoundly. There is the practical issue of the class boycotts, now [in] their third week. Certainly last week, the campus was very quiet. The level of uncertainty and the extent of the media coverage of what's going on, I think that is preoccupying everybody here.

The other interesting subject is to think about the medium and longer term. How is it going to make a difference, and what difference is it going to make? I think we just don't know yet. I'm sure there'll be books written about the last few days. I'm sure there'll be lessons to learn both in terms of social policy and in terms of human behavior and how to manage groups of people with different opinions. The students are empowered by what's been going on. They've become very significant figures in the media and in deliberations with the government. And I imagine this is going to have an effect for years to come in terms of student activism.

Q: If democratic principals are compromised, would that affect your ability to attract faculty and students from abroad?

A: Hong Kong doesn't currently have a free democracy in the sense [of what] I've been used to in the United Kingdom. I think that fact has not impeded Hong Kong U's ability to attract overseas students and faculty. What is profoundly worrying for my university and the sector in general is the effect that the current episode is having on the perception of Hong Kong internationally. People might be put off in the short term by a feeling that Hong Kong is now a place of great uncertainty, whereas until a couple weeks ago people would have regarded Hong Kong with more optimism.

Q: Is it a worry that as the mainland's influence grows in Hong Kong, academic freedom might be curtailed?

A: I consider it a major responsibility of mine to do everything that I can to defend academic freedom and freedom of speech. I think it is complicated, but Hong Kong is still a very free place, and freedom to protest and freedom of speech are exemplified by what is going on. At the moment, there is manifestly freedom of speech and freedom of association being practiced in the streets of Hong Kong. I think people worry about academic freedom wherever they are in the world. When you have a situation where things are changing so fast, people do become very uncertain. But I regard Hong Kong as a place where free speech is alive and well. And my job and the job of people like me is to make sure that we protect that into the future.