SCMP Saturday, September 9, 2000


Poll saga turns professors into sacrificial lambs

The Robert Chung Ting-yiu poll saga has come to a full stop with the voluntary resignations of vice-chancellor Cheng Yiu-chung and pro-vice-chancellor Wong Siu-lun. At least, this is the wishful thinking of members of the University of Hong Kong's council.
Professor Cheng insists he did nothing wrong and quit only to protect the university's larger interest. His self-sacrifice restores a lot of face and respect for him.
Developments in the survey saga have been led by the media. Now that heads are rolling, the damage to the university is considerable. However, the university council's decision to neither accept nor reject the report submitted by its three-member independent panel has given rise to scathing public criticism. This ambivalent stance has made it impossible for the saga, already prolonged, to come to an honourable conclusion.
At a press briefing, a reporter asked whether the vice-chancellor would move out of his official residence immediately, a clear indication that unsparing newshounds will not let go easily.
The council opted to "note" rather than "accept" the commission's report. As pointed out by student leaders, this smacks of a lack of sincerity and commitment on the part of the university administration. Twenty-eight of the 52 council members are drawn from outside the university. Most of them are business and community leaders who have close connections with the vice-chancellor and Tung Chee-hwa. They are a majority and can shape any council decision. The non-university members should have abstained from voting or deliberating to ensure that any council decision would be seen as fair. Unfortunately, they were mostly inclined to reject the report and did not have the decency to abstain.
The inquiry into Dr Chung's accusations was inherently limited. None of the witnesses were granted any legal privilege or immunity, which would have allowed them to speak freely. Therefore, the inquiry could not be comprehensive, and its findings are liable to legal challenge. The university is well aware of these deficiencies. In order not to provoke further controversy, it accepted the two professors' resignations but refused to adopt the report. The university has made a difficult compromise between the devil and the deep blue sea.
This has set a bad precedent. Hardly anybody will agree to chair a similar inquiry in future. The only alternative is a government-appointed independent commission or a hearing conducted by the Legislative Council.
Apart from Dr Chung, no one else from the university has come forward with concrete examples of interference in academic freedom. Meanwhile, there is no evidence to suggest that funding for Dr Chung's polling centre has "dried up". However, the university has paid a dear price, and university administrators must learn from this costly lesson.
Another outstanding issue is the future of the Chief Executive's senior personal aide, Andrew Lo Cheung-on. I believe the new Legco is bound to raise the matter. If Mr Lo emerges unscathed, the two professors' resignations will have been rendered meaningless.
Container Terminal 9 (CT9), which is under construction, will bolster Hong Kong's position as the world's busiest port. Significant as it is, however, the project must not be allowed to pollute marine life.
Greenpeace says Hyundai Engineering has been dumping toxic mud into mainland waters off Dangan Island at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta since construction of the facility began. That region has already been designated by mainland authorities as a conservation zone. About 40 per cent of catches by Hong Kong fishermen is from there.
The environmental group notes the transportation fee to dispose properly of a cubic metre of mud adds up to about $80 and says construction of CT9 will involve moving 18.1 million cubic metres of mud in order to accommodate ocean-going vessels. Of this, Greenpeace says, about eight million is highly contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls and tributyl tin paint.
Hyundai has been sending the sludge to Dangan, apparently to save an estimated $500 million. Greenpeace says these potentially hazardous substances should have been processed and stored in containers before the mud was left at the designated site.
The engineering firm consulted the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) in advance, according to a department spokesman. The department also discussed the matter with mainland marine authorities. Hyundai's application was granted only after the department was satisfied that samples drawn from the affected waters were compatible with international standards. Hyundai was also required to submit data on pollution levels to mainland regulators.
But Greenpeace is concerned that the dredging arrangements will jeopardise marine life and affect the food chain. It is demanding that the project be suspended until a comprehensive assessment of the entire CT9 project is completed. The two consortia behind the facility have yet to explain to the public. Before they do, the EPD and other relevant departments should clarify whether the EPD made clear in the tender invitations that the contractor would be required to dump the processed sludge off East Sha Chau, and whether this condition is based on a sufficient environmental-impact assessment. Secondly, did Hyundai apply to dump the sludge off Dangan instead? Has the processing requirement been adhered to? Are pollution levels there still within acceptable standards? Also, Hyundai has admitted it is cheaper to dump toxic sludge in mainland waters than in Hong Kong territory. Why is this so?
Has the EPD allowed Hyundai to deviate from the original contractual terms? If so, has this been possible only by violating requirements and standards set by the department? Use of the mainland dumping site has resulted in a saving of about $500 million. Who is the biggest winner in this? Should the Government reclaim this sum from the contractor?
The EPD's primary objective is to protect the environment - its "not in my back yard" mentality is unacceptable. Businesses should not be allowed to exploit differences in environmental regulation between the SAR and the mainland.
Albert Cheng King-hon ( ) is a broadcaster and former publisher.