The Board of Trustees for the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) recently announced the reappointment of Dr. Rocky Sung-chi Tuan as president for a three-year term that would end on December 31, 2026. The decision was reached after a debate regarding Dr. Tuan’s support of students during the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong.
Born in Hong Kong, Dr. Tuan received his Ph.D. in Life Sciences in 1977 from Rockefeller University in New York. His extensive academic career began in 1980 as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Biology. In 1988, he joined Thomas Jefferson University (in Pennsylvania) as Director of Orthopaedic Research, and Professor and Vice-Chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. While at Jefferson, Dr. Tuan established the first Cell and Tissue Engineering Ph.D. program in the United States.
Dr. Tuan was recruited to the University of Pittsburgh in 2009 and served as the Arthur J. Rooney Sr. Chair in Sports Medicine and Executive Vice Chairman for Orthopaedic Research in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. He joined CUHK in 2016 as a Distinguished Visiting Professor and Director of the Institute for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine. He was later promoted on Jan. 1, 2018 as CUHK’s eighth Vice-Chancellor and President.
Dr. Tuan’s reappointment as CUHK’s President pleased and surprised many people after what transpired during his second year in that position. Dr. Tuan was accused of supporting students involved in Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement, also known as the 2019 Hong Kong protests.
The police violently suppressed the protests. Tens of thousands of HK residents were arrested for opposing the upcoming passage of the “Hong Kong version of the National Security Law” in 2020. Originating in Beijing, the law intended to severely impede what remained of Hong Kong’s freedoms of speech and media.
After the protests began, Dr. Tuan initiated a dialogue with students and on Oct. 18 released an open letter stating, “some police officers suspected of improper use of violence or human rights violations should be condemned after investigation.”
As the protests escalated, CUHK’s students began throwing objects and disrupting traffic near the campus, which prompted the Hong Kong police to open fire on students with pepper bullets and tear gas. This incident would eventually be known as the Siege of the CUHK.
While the violence on campus was raging, on November 11, 2019, Dr. Tuan visited the scene to help mediate the situation. He asked the police to retreat and was assisting the many injured students when the police lobbed tear gas at the group. For his bravery under fire, he promptly gained the respect of protestors and students.
There has been considerable interest in whether Dr. Tuan’s involvement in the protests would affect his reappointment as CUHK’s president. In 2021, Liu Guangyan, the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the CCP in Hong Kong publicly described the protests as a “color revolution.” He was referring to how student dissent on an internationally recognized campus could be used by Western politicians to meddle in Chinese politics.
In defense of Dr. Tuan’s reappointment, CUHK Council Chairman Leung Nai-Pang went on record to say he was grateful for Tuan’s years of leadership and tireless service. This prompted the displeasure of Leung Chun-Ying, Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and former HK Chief Executive. Leung had initially accused Dr. Tuan of “ruining CUHK” and said he should be held accountable. On the day Dr. Tuan’s reappointment was announced, Leung Chun-Ying posted on social media that the decision was “tantamount to an affirmation of Tuan’s performance during the 2019 Hong Kong Protests.”
Lau Kwok-fun, also a CUHK board member and pro-establishment Legislative Council member said Tuan’s governance during the protests was “not firm,” but he hoped a new strategy would be implemented “to get rid of the ‘tyrannical university’ label.” Another CUHK board member and pro-establishment legislator, Alice Mak, likewise hoped Tuan would “shed the stigma of CUHK as a tyrannical university.
In March 2021, Dr. Tuan publicly responded to CUHK being stigmatized as a tyrannical university. He said, “We absolutely deny this stigmatization,” and that the university would take action to eliminate the unfair label.
Dr. Tuan stressed that the university was not exempt from the law and would cooperate with police authorities. When asked about helping the arrested students, Tuan said they are over 18 years old and “adults should be responsible for their own actions.”
When interviewed by the Epoch Times on April 28, students of CUHK said they disagreed with labeling the school as tyrannical, but still took pride in having protested for their freedoms. A master’s graduate said because students had not been afraid of force and suppression, this “demonstrates their concern for Hong Kong society” and the value of the university’s existence.
A third-year student expressed concern that Tuan’s political stance may change in the future. He said it “has disappointed many CUHK students” that Dr. Tuan accepted an advisory board position one week ago with Lee Ka-Chiu, the only candidate for Hong Kong’s new chief executive.
Further alarming students at the end of 2021, CUHK removed the Goddess of Democracy statue that had stood on the campus for over 11 years. In response to the concerns, the university claimed it never authorized the placement of the statue. But this contradicts a statement made in 2010 by CUHK’s president Joseph Sung, who was quoted as saying, “It is a fact the statue was put up, and the university will not suppress any voices.”
In 2022, QS World University Rankings showed that CUHK’s rating rose to 39th in the world from 49th in 2019. Clearly, its reputation on the world stage had not been stigmatized as tyrannical, despite having a president with the famous boxer’s name of “Rocky.”
Nie Law contributed to this article.