Bend­ing to Bei­jing

Hong Kong fears ero­sion of re­search au­ton­omy

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - [email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Schol­ars in Hong Kong fear that ero­sion of the re­search fund­ing fire­wall be­tween China and Hong Kong could di­min­ish aca­demic free­dom in the re­gion.

In a pol­icy shift un­veiled in May 2018, China an­nounced that it would al­low Hong Kong re­searchers to ap­ply di­rectly to Bei­jing for fund­ing. The change fol­lowed a re­lax­ation over the past decade whereby China funded more than a dozen “state key lab­o­ra­to­ries” in Hong Kong.

An­other change saw re­searchers from both ju­ris­dic­tions bankrolled from a joint scheme run by the Na­tional Nat­u­ral Sci­ence Foun­da­tion of China and Hong Kong’s Re­search Grants Coun­cil. Such ar­range­ments have eroded a fund­ing fire­wall be­tween Hong Kong and main­land China.

Many univer­sity lead­ers have wel­comed the in­creased fund­ing.

“We look for­ward to see­ing more of these pol­icy mod­i­fi­ca­tions,” said Wei Shyy, pres­i­dent of Hong Kong Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy. “It will have im­pact in terms of the sup­port we have to do ba­sic re­search.”

But other schol­ars are cog­nisant of the im­pact that fund­ing from Bei­jing could have on aca­demic free­dom. “Money talks,” said Rocky Tuan, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong univer­sity lead­ers say that they have con­sid­er­ably more in­sti­tu­tional au­ton­omy than their peers in places such as Ja­pan, Tai­wan and Sin­ga­pore, not to men­tion main­land China it­self – a trait that they say has helped the ter­ri­tory cul­ti­vate more top-200 uni­ver­si­ties than any other city apart from Lon­don.

Ian Hol­l­i­day, vice-pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Hong Kong, said that di­rect in­ter­ven­tion by Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties re­mained un­likely. But he added that uni­ver­si­ties were vul­ner­a­ble to “sub­tle” in­flu­ences – rang­ing from main­land Chi­nese study­ing in the ter­ri­tory’s univer­ sities to alumni who wanted more en­gage­ment with the ­main­land.

“It’s very dif­fuse, but nev­er­the­less quite pow­er­ful,” he said. “There are many forces in so­ci­ety that drive con­form­ity with Bei­jing’s agenda.”

Pro­fes­sor Hol­l­i­day said that pro­fes­sors run­ning labs re­plete with post­docs and PhD stu­dents needed “big” money. “In­creas­ingly that’s avail­able from Bei­jing rather than Hong Kong,” he said.

“Many of our pro­fes­sors would not want HKU to get a black mark be­cause, and I’m spec­u­lat­ing, it might jeop­ar­dise fu­ture fund­ing streams. There are top­ics that maybe some aca­demics choose not to pur-

sue be­cause they see their fu­ture in Hong Kong rather than else­where.”

Ger­ard Postiglione, co­or­di­na­tor of Ling­nan Univer­sity’s Con­sor­tium for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search in Asia, said that the Chi­nese po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment had “tight­ened up in­creas­ingly” and could af­fect Hong Kong uni­ver­si­ties’ stand­ing in global rank­ings.

“Without a doubt, their suc­cess has been due to an open in­tel­lec­tual at­mos­phere, free global in­ter­change and unim­peded aca­demic and sci­en­tific co­op­er­a­tion,” he added.

Pro­fes­sor Postiglione said that he was fre­quently asked whether that tra­di­tion was at risk. “It’s some- thing we don’t know,” he con­fessed.

“Hong Kong has its own Con­sti­tu­tion. If it’s in­ter­preted and de­fended in the way it was in­tended to be, the uni­ver­si­ties will re­main as open and pro­fes­sion­ally au­tonomous as ever.

“If they have to closely in­te­grate into the main­land univer­sity sys­tem, they may lose their edge in cer­tain ar­eas of the so­cial sciences and the hu­man­i­ties. But if they re­tain aca­demic open­ness and in­tel­lec­tual free­dom, they won’t lose their edge. And there’s a great deal to gain in terms of gen­er­ous re­search fund­ing and op­por­tu­ni­ties to work with big data and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence.”

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