Will China Tighten Constraints on Hong Kong Universities?

hong kong

by Futao Huang


The recent massive demonstrations in Hong Kong to protest against attempts to pass a law allowing people there to be handed over to mainland China have drawn a lot of attention worldwide.

Because large numbers of academics, researchers and students also participated in or supported the protests, especially those that ended in the occupation of the Legislative Council building on 1 July — the day mainland China celebrated the 98th anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party — deep concerns have been expressed about whether mainland China is likely to impose more restrictive control on Hong Kong universities, academics and students.
My view is that, although the central government will inevitably increase its influence on and control key aspects of higher education in Hong Kong in the future, the Chinese government will not impose immediate political or ideological constraints on Hong Kong’s universities, including their academics and students, or interfere directly with institutional governance arrangements and teaching and research activities.

However, that does not necessarily mean that mainland China will adopt a laissez-faire policy or that there will be no ramifications for the territory’s universities. In contrast to its policies towards universities, academics and students after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the central government will probably adopt more indirect and gradual ways of tackling dissent at the territory’s universities. There are several reasons for this:

  • First, legally, the principle of “one country, two systems” and the semiautonomous status of Hong Kong after its handover to mainland China in 1997 are still officially respected and accepted by the central government. It would be extremely risky and would bring severe criticism from the international community, especially the Trump administration and the United Kingdom government, if it abandoned the principle and changed the current status of Hong Kong.
  • Second, despite huge differences between Hong Kong and Taiwan, there is little doubt that the central government’s ability to successfully “solve” the problem of Hong Kong, including how it reacts to the territory’s universities, academics and students, academic freedom etc., significantly determines how successfully it deals with the problem of Taiwan and its ultimate goal of unifying China. In a major sense, the model of how it handles issues in Hong Kong could have enormous implications for managing the situation with Taiwan.
  • Third, several Hong Kong universities, especially the University of Hong Kong, are still ranked among the top 50 in the main global university ranking tables like Times Higher Education or QS. For Western academics, Hong Kong’s universities are still considered as the best places for understanding and researching mainland China. At the same time, albeit to a lesser extent than before, researchers in Hong Kong’s universities are still playing an important role in introducing China to Western countries and bridging the higher education gap between Western universities and mainland Chinese higher education institutions. Both sides are well aware of the significant role Hong Kong’s universities and their academics play in enhancing the quality of mainland Chinese universities, internationalising mainland Chinese higher education and, in particular, boosting its international competitiveness. At least for the moment, the central government needs to use the model of Hong Kong’s universities to reform and improve mainland Chinese universities.
  • Fourth, in reality it would be extremely difficult for the central government to launch any radical or revolutionary strategies to change the core value or intrinsic character of Hong Kong’s universities. For example, with regard to institutional governance arrangements, it would be impossible for Hong Kong’s universities to allow the Communist Party to establish the Chinese governance model, including absolute leadership over all aspects of university life, as it does in mainland China, even in the near future. It would be extremely difficult for mainland China to impose a similar national-level curriculum as in mainland Chinese universities on any universities in Hong Kong.
  • Finally, if the central government takes any radical measures against students or academics at Hong Kong’s universities or sets clear limitations on academic freedom in any official way, it would have a potentially significant impact on Hong Kong universities’ ability to attract the best talent from other countries. This would surely result in the loss of their international prestige, academic attractiveness and position as a regional hub.

However, as mentioned earlier, all of this does not mean that the central government will not take any action with regard to the demonstrations. It is likely that the following policies and measures might be implemented in a strategic way:

  • First, the central government and neighbouring local authorities, such as that of Guangdong province, might create more favourable policies to facilitate a closer and direct collaboration between universities, academics and students in Hong Kong and those from mainland China.
  • Second, central government, academia and even industry representatives from mainland China could allocate more funding to encourage universities in Hong Kong, their academics and students to be involved in a wide variety of academic activities. For example, building more branch campuses of universities in Hong Kong in collaboration with mainland universities, developing more collaborative and exchange programmes for academics and students from Hong Kong to encourage them to come to the mainland, and so forth.
  • Finally, the possible decrease in the number of local or Western academics in Hong Kong’s universities could bring more academics from mainland China to Hong Kong and see them hired at Hong Kong’s universities. This would absolutely influence the administrative and academic climate of universities in Hong Kong. It is impossible to predict exactly what changes might occur with regard to Hong Kong’s universities, academics, students and academic systems — but some trends are apparent.

While the central government might introduce more rigid monitoring and stronger supervision of Hong Kong, it will probably not take full and complete control over the territory, including its universities, academics, students and institutional governance and management, as it does on the mainland.

This article was originally published online in University World News at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.phpstory=20190709094149839.
Huang Futao is a professor in the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, Japan.

This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #06. Click here to read the full issue.

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