Hong Kong University Council holds emergency meeting over complaints against President Zhang Xiang

Zhang Xiang

2nd October 2023 – (Hong Kong) The University of Hong Kong (HKU) Council convened an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss multiple complaints against the university’s president, Professor Zhang Xiang. Among the allegations are exemptions from tendering procedures for hiring vice presidents and bypassing the Council in accepting certain donations.

The unusual extra session comes just a week after the Council’s regular meeting last Tuesday. According to sources, Zhang sent a lawyer’s letter to the Council secretary requesting a 4-6 week postponement of the meeting and insisting he be allowed legal representation if it proceeds. HKU has yet to respond to media enquiries about the developments.

One complaint centres around HKU’s agreement last November to accept a RMB 10 million donation from a Chinese state-owned entity facing U.S. sanctions, to fund Mainland student scholarships. The donor company reportedly requested the funds be transferred through the Red Cross Society of China and wanted oversight over scholarship recipients.

Critics argue the donation’s delayed arrival in April 2023 raises questions, as scholarship recipients were allegedly already selected back in September 2022 before funds were received. There are also objections over the initial request for funds to be controlled by the President’s Office instead of the designated scholarship account.

Another allegation involves HKU hiring a U.S. executive search firm called Isaacson Miller for around US$330,000 without tendering, to recruit for the vacant positions of Vice-President (Institutional Advancement) and Dean of Medicine.

While search firms have previously been hired via open tender, the University justified directly appointing Isaacson Miller this time due to their perceived uniqueness in meeting requirements.

Some council members argue the complaints warrant urgent discussion given the significant sums and sensitive appointments involved. However, Zhang has strongly objected to the meeting and its timing. The Council’s handling of the matter will have important implications for HKU’s governance and autonomy.

The University of Hong Kong Council already held its regular meeting last Tuesday, 25th September. However, multiple complaints against HKU President Zhang Xiang have now triggered an extraordinary additional session on 3rd October.

Zhang further complicated matters by sending a legal letter to the Council secretary demanding a 4-6 week delay of the meeting. He also insisted on allowing his lawyers to attend future sessions discussing the allegations. This represents a highly unusual intervention that adds uncertainty to the Council’s plans.

One issue apparently prompting the emergency meeting is a RMB 10 million donation for Mainland student scholarships that Zhang facilitated. The funds came from Ninestar Corporation, a Shenzhen-listed company facing U.S. sanctions over alleged Uyghur labour abuses.

The donation was proposed in September 2022 but only materialized in April 2023, after HKU signed an agreement with the Red Cross Society of China, the intermediary. Interestingly, the scholarship recipients were allegedly already selected in September 2022 before funds were even received.

Critics queried why the donation was initially slated for the HKU President’s Office instead of the scholarship account. While it was eventually disbursed properly, the handling raised doubts about oversight.

Another complaint concerns HKU hiring U.S. executive search firm, Isaacson Miller, for around US$330,000 without tendering to recruit the vacant Vice-President (Institutional Advancement) and Dean of Medicine roles.

Isaacson Miller’s appointment skipped the normal tender process. The University insisted only the firm satisfied requirements since HKU aimed to become a globally leading university and required world-class candidates.

However, some argue this unjustifiably sidestepped proper procedures for major appointments. They dispute that Isaacson Miller was the sole company capable of identifying qualified talent. Combined with previously revealed exemptions used to purchase Zhang’s official BMW car, there are growing criticisms that governance standards are eroding under Zhang’s leadership.

Meanwhile, Zhang expressed his views in a statement released shortly after midnight on Tuesday, condemning those who spread rumours and leaked confidential documents and internal information from HKU. He characterised the deliberate and organised accusations as “severe defamation” and informed that he has sought advice from his legal team regarding potential further actions.