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What is the Fate of Universities in Hong Kong?

John Aubrey Douglass, Senior Research Fellow - Public Policy and Higher Education, Center for Studies in Higher Education | November 4, 2021

Hong Kong Protests

These are dark days for universities, and more generally civil liberties, in Hong Kong.  In the early 1980s, China’s president Deng Xiaoping outlined the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” for the reunification of Hong Kong with China as part of the negotiations with the United Kingdom. There would be “One China,” with distinct Chinese regions such as Hong Kong and Macau, which would retain their own economic and administrative systems. Mainland China would continue to pursue “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

What the One China, Two Systems policy truly meant for Hong Kong remained a question–a vague promise or a true commitment by Beijing? In the negotiations with the United Kingdom, there was an assurance stated in Hong Kong’s new constitution: “The socialist system and policies shall not be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.” This became known as Hong Kong’s “Basic Law,” which also included a guarantee of academic freedom under Article 137.

The Arrival of Xi

Yet with Xi’s election in 2012 as China’s president, the One China, Two Systems concept began to erode, at first slowly, and then rapidly. China’s resurgent nationalism under Xi brought measures for greater control not only of Hong Kong’s government but its public universities — changes in governance that mirrored similar reforms on the Mainland.

All Hong Kong universities are formally under the direction of the chief executive of Hong Kong, who serves as the official chancellor of all the city’s universities, and appoints 15 of the 23 members of the “councils” (or governing boards) for each university. These councils hold the power to block faculty and staff appointments and to steer selection of academic leaders, including university presidents, toward individuals sympathetic or approved by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government. The councils are increasingly populated by those who support Xi’s policy agenda under the watchful eye of party leaders.

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This Blog is adopted from the new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education published by Johns Hopkins University Press available as a paperback and as an Open Access eBook via Project Muse. A version of this article, written with Bryan E. Penprase, was published in University World News.

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As in China, a systematic effort emerged to constrain academic freedom, buttressed by not only threats of penalties and, in some instances, imprisonment, but also financial incentives to voice and publish pro-mainland policies. In turn, this created a relatively new environment of self-censorship among academics.

Prior to Xi’s ascendency, Hong Kong encouraged open debate and had policies that attempted to attract academic and professional talent to Hong Kong. Like Singapore, Hong Kong formulated a strategy to become a “higher education hub” for Asia as a means to bolster Hong Kong’s rapid economic expansion and booming financial and business sectors.

Before the formulation of its higher education hub strategy, Hong Kong’s higher educational institutions included two major universities, the University of Hong Kong, established in 1911, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, established in 1963. A new technical university, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, was added in 1991, and five additional universities were created from existing colleges or institutes in the 1990s.

In 2007, Donald Tsang, then chief executive of Hong Kong, explicitly stated his intention to recruit nonlocal students to Hong Kong schools and universities. Hong Kong increased admission quotas for international students, relaxed employment restrictions, and provide scholarships for nonlocal students from mainland China. Hong Kong’s universities flourished.

But since Xi’s election as president of China, infringements on academic freedom became more frequent and severe. Hong Kong’s government wrestled with its difficult mandate to reconcile China’s increasing authority and insistence on the Communist Party’s notion of civil order with the expectations of academics and the public for continued freedom of speech and extensive legal rights under the One Country, Two Systems doctrine.

For Beijing, universities appeared as one of the primary sources of fomenting unrest and political opposition. This, in turn, triggered the selective removal of controversial academic figures from their positions, government interference in promotions and appointments, selection of politically connected and Chinese-aligned figures as presidents of Hong Kong’s universities, and increasing pressure to limit speech on campuses..

The Occupy Protests

The 2014 Occupy protests that briefly paralyzed Hong Kong were originally advocated by two professors (one at the University of Hong Kong and one at Chinese University of Hong Kong), and the Occupy and Umbrella protests were led and implemented by students. The two professors, law professor Benny Tai at HKU, and professor of sociology Chan Kin-man at CUHK, were imprisoned by the Chinese authorities.

At Lingnan University, Professor Chin Wan-kan, author of the 2011 book Hong Kong as a City State and proponent of complete autonomy for Hong Kong, was informed that his political activism “severely hurt the reputation of Lingnan.” His contract was not renewed in 2016.

Cheng Chung-tai, a lecturer at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, was fired after he was accused of “desecrating the flag” by displaying upside-down versions of the PRC and HKSAR (Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region) flags on the legislator’s desks in the Legislative Council. More recently, in September, two more faculty were fired at Lingnan universities for voicing at one time support of the democracy movement.

Hong Kong’s government ministry overseeing universities has numerous methods for influencing tenured faculty. For example, they can deny the extension of contracts beyond the mandatory retirement ages, set for between 60 and 65 at Hong Kong’s universities. Several politically active faculty were denied extensions, including faculty supportive of the Occupy protests.

Concerns about contract extensions raised questions about Hong Kong’s competitiveness with universities in the United States and Australia in hiring and retaining faculty: prospective faculty became concerned that they might labeled as “troublesome faculty,” fired, and possibly jailed.

The National Security Law

All of this before the passage of the National Security Law for Hong Kong by Beijing when the worst fears of the political activists, and many academics, seems to have become true. Effective July 1, 2020, the new law passed by Beijing’s government prohibited “secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces,” in Hong Kong and beyond. Xi’s government then established a new security office in Hong Kong with its own law enforcement personnel. This office can extradite those who violate the new law for trial on the mainland.

As a result of this law, plus a mainland China induced reorganization of the management of universities, the future of academic and personal freedom in Hong Kong and the vitality of its universities are very much in doubt.

The threat of prosecution under the law has resulted in the closure of student unions on Hong Kong campuses, as well as the Professional Teacher’s Union after being accused of spreading anti-Beijing and anti-government sentiment.

Where Hong Kong’s universities were once a magnet for attracting talent globally, now there are the initial indicators of the flight of talent. And this is not simply in the higher education sector.

Like in Mainland China, student and fellow faculty are now encouraged to spy and inform on their colleagues regarding possible seditious comments or activism, using a police hotline. Books by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, as well as by Hong Kong natives writing on civil liberties, are be expunged from libraries. The Hong Kong government ordered schools to adopt a more patriotic curriculum and advised teachers to report any breaches of the city’s national security law. When will it make a similar order to shape the curriculum of its universities?

Additional connections with mainland universities are also being made as part of a restructuring of Hong Kong’s higher education funding model that will likely contribute to even greater influence and controls from Beijing.

The Future?

It is difficult to project the fate of Hong Kong’s higher education. How can it continue to attract and retain academic and professional talent? Can Hong Kong’s institutions remain competitive with other leading world universities?

What is clear: The future of Hong Kong’s universities is tied to the outcome of the larger question of the island’s political future and the sustainability of Xi’s form of neo-nationalism, which increasingly punishes dissent and incorporates old and new forms of surveillance using technology. Political geography still matters – a central theme in the new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities.

There is an emerging sense of the inevitable integration with China; the future of Hong Kong may be less as a “global city” and instead as one of many Chinese cities, with economic activity and political control coming increasingly from trade with the Mainland. And this worries many in Hong Kong.

Over the past year, the city-state’s population declined by more than 1.2%, its biggest decrease in 60 year. This does not appear to be simply a blip. Some of this flight has been facilitated by the British government that has extended travel rights by granting British National Overseas (BNO) passports to Hong Kong citizens. Many are moving to Taiwan, but Canada has also extended an open invitation, in search of international talent and entrepreneurs. Some of the population decline is also due to the decline in new arrivals to Hong Kong.

Of those leaving Hong Kong, how many are faculty and talented students? That is not clear, yet. Interviews with a number of current academics shows that many faculty with the means and other opportunities to leave are indeed leaving. The vague wording of the law has a dual effect which both keeps academics on edge about how they should teach, yet also provides little clarity on whether an equilibrium can be found where academics can continue as they were. Higher than average salaries also is helping to retain some faculty and recruitment in some fields.

As the COVID pandemic declines and travel becomes more easy and safe, perhaps then we will begin to see the full impact of Xi’s nationalist impulse and overt suppression of academic freedom. Whatever that outcome, universities in Hong Kong have undergone a significant change in the governance and management that empowers the PRC. Universities in Hong Kong will never be the same.