Image: Catholic University of St. Joseph, Macau
Sanctions announced this month against three university professors in Macau have spurred concerns over academic freedom in higher education institutions and a tightening of control by Beijing of the special administrative region.
The three professors – two from the Catholic University of Saint Joseph and a third from the public University of Macau – were dismissed or demoted earlier this month for what some of their supporters say was the expression of criticism against local government authorities.
Eric Sautedé, professor of political science at Saint Joseph and an authority on Chinese history, lost his post on July 11, while his wife Emilie Tran, dean of the same university, was demoted to professor.
A third academic, political science professor Bill Kwok-ping Chou of Macau University was suspended without pay for 24 days.
Sautedé, a French national and a regular columnist for the Macau Daily Times and other publications, writes regularly about government policy and relations with China.
Past columns have addressed the controversial topic of commemoration events for the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 in Hong Kong and Macau as well as criticism of Macau’s chief executive, Fernando Chui Sai-on.
Emilie Tran, the wife of Sautedé and whose research focuses on the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party and to a lesser extent the gaming industry in Macau, has refused to respond to questions about her demotion.
Bill Kwok-ping Chou, a professor at the University of Macau since 2002, is an active pro-democracy activist who has publicly advocated for the introduction of universal suffrage.
Father Peter Stilwell, rector of the University of Saint Joseph, spoke to Portuguese newspaper Ponto Final to “clarify things” about Sautedé’s dismissal.
“There is a principle in the Church, which is not to interfere in local political debate. It is possible to study different political systems and the Basic Law [in Macau] without interfering in the affairs of the present government,” Fr Stilwell was quoted as saying.
“The line is thin and difficult to draw between what is political commentary and what belongs to academic commentary.”
He further explained the dismissal in an open letter to university staff released on June 25.
“Ultimately, the fundamental point that has focused my attention is this: how a Catholic university is positioned in Macau to be faithful to the humanist values promoted by it for 400 years, and that the local community perceives as such, so they are neither a mark of foreign interests nor of political infighting,” Fr Stilwell said in the letter.
“Eric and St Joseph University separate. This decision belongs to me and Eric is not to ‘blame’ in anything, except that he remains true to his convictions.”
Bishop Jose Lai Hung-seng of Macau, who has supervisory authority over the university through the Catholic Foundation for Higher Education, said no pressure was put on Fr Stilwell to dismiss Sautedé.
Catholic observers, however, say they remain suspicious about the deeper significance that these sanctions might have in academic circles, where pro-democracy activism and the pursuit of universal suffrage is common, both in Macau and Hong Kong.
When contacted by Églises d’Asie, Sautedé said he thought his dismissal and the sanctions against his wife and Bill Kwok-ping Chou were probably the result of “overzealous people who wanted to please their superiors”.
He further left open the possibility of a legal challenge to his dismissal and added that the university’s decision was “a dangerous precedent” and “clearly contrary to the principle of ‘one country, two systems, and contradicts some key points of the Basic Law [of Macau]”.
This article appears courtesy of Églises d’Asie, the information agency of the Paris Foreign Missions. Translated and edited from the original French, it is published here by permission.