On July 28, 2020, the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) Council ordered the dismissal of Associate Professor of Law Benny Tai, in connection with his peaceful pro-democracy activism.
Tai has come under fire for his active role in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movements in 2014, particularly the Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign which grew into the 2014 Umbrella Movement. In March 2017, Hong Kong authorities arrested Tai and eight other scholars, students, and activists for their participation in the 2014 protests (see report). In April 2019, a Hong Kong Court convicted Tai and his eight fellow activists for their involvement in the protests. Tai was sentenced to 16 months imprisonment on charges of “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance” and “inciting others to cause public nuisance.” He was released on bail in August 2019 pending an appeal.
In 2019, the HKU administration had begun an investigation into Tai’s conduct by creating the Committee of Enquiry into Possible Good Cause with the purpose of determining whether Tai would be able to continue teaching given his past conviction. The inquiry committee submitted a report on its findings to the University Senate in May 2019. In early July, the Senate — comprised of university faculty, administrators, and student representatives — determined that although Tai had been guilty of “misconduct” for Tai’s involvement in the 2014 Protests, this behavior did not warrant his removal from the Law School faculty.
On July 28, HKU’s Council rejected the University Senate’s recommendation, voting 18-2 in favor of dismissing Tai from his teaching position. Less than half of HKU’s Council is comprised of faculty and staff from the university; remaining seats are assigned to individuals outside of the institution, including six that are assigned by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. In recent years, the Council has often been described as being politicized and under the influence of pro-Beijing government actors.
The vote ordering Tai’s dismissal was received with considerable condemnation in and outside of Hong Kong. Tai, in a social media post, lamented that this decision “marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong … Academic institutions in Hong Kong cannot protect their members from internal and outside interferences.” The Hong Kong University Students’ Union expressed support for Tai and stated its intention to begin a petition calling for a reexamination of Tai’s case, while fellow faculty noted that this decision sacrificed the institution’s reputation. Tai also stated that he would appeal his case to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who serves as the Chancellor of HKU, in addition to possibly seeking judicial review with the support of his lawyers.
Benny Tai’s dismissal occurred against the backdrop of a National Security Law being passed. The Law has been criticized for encroaching on Hong Kong’s political autonomy and undermining Hong Kongers’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly, among others.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the dismissal of a scholar, in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Hong Kong is a party. University authorities should refrain from retaliating against expressive activity, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, suspensions, and dismissals aimed at restricting or retaliating against such activity undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.