HONG KONG (Reuters) - A leading law professor was barred from taking up a senior post at one of Hong Kong's top universities on Tuesday in what some said was a blow to academic freedom as Beijing tries to tighten its grip a year after student-led protests rocked the city.
For more than a century, HKU, one of Asia's top universities, has served as a bastion of liberal education in the city that returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, producing many of its top politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers.
Hong Kong's constitution guarantees the financial enclave a high degree of autonomy denied in mainland China by its Communist leaders, including academic freedom, broad individual rights and an independent judiciary.
But on Tuesday, the university's governing council, stacked with supporters of the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government, thwarted the appointment of former HKU law school dean Johannes Chan as a university pro-vice-chancellor.
He had been recommended for the post last year by a university search committee headed by HKU's president after a global recruiting drive.
Liberals see Chan's blocked appointment as part of a broad move to limit academic freedom at an institution whose students and academics played a big role in 79 days of protests last year that saw thousands take to the streets demanding full democracy.
"It's obvious that the decision was a political one," said Ip Kin-yuen, a lawmaker and head of an HKU alumni association that recently saw 7,800 of its members voice support for Chan.
"Academic freedom will no longer exist after this."
Some students held a candlelight vigil in support of Chan while the student union said they'd consider further protests.
Chan is one of Hong Kong's most distinguished legal scholars and a prominent human rights advocate.
Beijing's representative Liaison Office in Hong Kong did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters, nor did the office of Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying.
Two sources in contact with the Liaison Office said its representatives had expressed frustration that Hong Kong universities could not be controlled.
A senior Western academic at the university who declined to be identified said the campaign against Chan had created a "climate of deep apprehension for all, and a climate of fear for those who are outspoken or politically involved".
"They have moved far faster than I thought they ever would to interfere with that," the academic said.
Beijing has not publicly stated its opposition to Chan's appointment, but Beijing-controlled media have published more than 300 articles since November targeting him.
Many stress his unsuitability for the job given his public support for last year's protests.
A government think-tank has also been lobbying council members to vote against Chan, according to local media.
While Hong Kong universities are much more free than those in mainland China, the HKU's president, Peter Mathieson, told Reuters before the vote that he believed pressure on him and others who back Chan's appointment was being "orchestrated".
He said his personal emails had been hacked and some had been published in pro-Beijing media. He added that he could not rule out the possibility Beijing was behind the episode.
"Universities regard themselves as paragons of free speech and freedom of expression and a place where different views can be celebrated and used to the advantage of society," said Mathieson. "I think my job and the job of our colleagues … is to do our damnedest to see those principles protected."
Additional reporting by Greg Torode, Jessica Macy Yu and Ever Tang in Hong Kong; Editing by Mark Heinrich