A power struggle has broken out at the University of Hong Kong

A power struggle at the top of Hong Kong’s leading university has been exposed by controversial management changes.

Xiang Zhang, vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, was cleared of misconduct in April after a six-month investigation into claims that he mismanaged funds and failed to follow public procurement and recruitment procedures. He denied any abuse.

However, Professor Zhang’s leadership was again questioned following a change in the university’s executive under council chair Priscilla Wong, which the vice-chancellor claimed he had not been consulted about.

As the dispute escalated, both Professor Zhang and the council publicly accused each other of distorting the facts.

On June 10, the council issued a statement rejecting the vice-chancellor’s claims that the new appointments were made without his knowledge.

She accused Professor Zhang of failing to fill several vice-president positions since his appointment in 2018, “resulting in the absence of a complete management team and frequent management problems.”

The council also complained about “procedural irregularities and unconventional practices”, including the expansion of Professor Zhang’s staff to 60 people and the council’s bypassing decisions on “major projects”.

Most of these claims were denied in a statement published by Professor Zhang on the university’s website.

The vice-rector stated that the council’s claims were “completely inconsistent with the facts” and maintained that he was “never consulted about the proposed candidates for management positions.”

The reshuffle saw the demotion of key allies of Professor Zhang, including Richard Wong, an economics professor who previously held the positions of deputy vice-chancellor and provost.

Tension lingers between Professor Zhang and Ms. Wong. When an investigation into misconduct was launched last October, Professor Zhang reportedly criticized Ms Wong’s proposal to open an office on campus, saying it could undermine academic autonomy.

However, the council denied any “personal animosity” between the pair, saying it would “continue to approach matters with objectivity and integrity.”

Sources suggested the council sought to limit the president’s influence while keeping him in office, amid concerns his leadership would be tempered by a desire to present the tenure of HKU’s first mainland Chinese-born leader as a success.

“There is no transparency regarding the management of the vice-chancellor, the investigation and now the appointment of a new management team,” said Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo and an HKU alumnus. “Everything is a mess.”

Council chairwoman Ms Wong is the wife of Martin Liao Cheung-kong, a member of Hong Kong’s legislative council known for his pro-Beijing stance.

Additionally, six members of the council are appointed by the university’s chancellor and Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee.

“The usual practice of the Chinese regime is to apply pressure from above, so I don’t think Beijing and the CEO can simply claim they have no role in these matters,” Poon added.

Another source at HKU who wished to remain anonymous agreed.

“All this fuss must be read in the context of nomination systems. Ultimately, it is the government that controls the university, among other things. by appointing the chairman of the council and, indirectly, all members of the council constituting the lay majority,” the source said.

As chancellor, Lee was forced to intervene. On June 11, he told the press that he had met with both Professor Zhang and Ms Wong and stressed the “importance of good communication” between them. “The interests of the university should come first,” he said.

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