The so-called mainlandisation of Hong Kong’s universities has become a topic of interest in international academic media. Recently, University World News, in noting that mainland academics in Hong Kong universities outnumbered local faculty this year for the first time, said it raised “fears” over “the international character of universities in Hong Kong, and their culture of open research”.
It would be ironic if mainland Chinese scholars and scientists fleeing ethnic profiling in the US arrive here only to find themselves being profiled again in Hong Kong.
While the number of academic staff in the city born on the mainland has increased over the past five years, it has not affected the international rankings of Hong Kong’s universities. If anything, the rankings have improved, from just three local universities among the world’s top 100 in 2018, according to Times Higher Education, to five this year.
The simple reason is that academic appointments in Hong Kong are based on performance, and not ethnicity, nationality, gender or religion. Anyone who has served on a search and recruitment committee would confirm it, as I can. This is also backed up by data from an international study of the academic profession in 20 university systems, in which more Hong Kong academics agreed – more than those from other systems – that appointments and resources were made depending on performance.
The University of Hong Kong – the city’s premier higher education establishment – is ranked year after year as the most international university in the world, which some contend is because non-local academics from the Chinese mainland count as international. In fact, the vast majority of them earned their doctorates overseas. That adds to the kind of diversity that universities in Hong Kong are known for in their staffing profiles.
My corridor of nine offices had notable academic staff with overseas degrees who were natives of Canada, Portugal, South Korea, Ukraine, India, Georgia, Hong Kong and the mainland, and there were other faculty colleagues from Finland, Honduras, Britain and the United States.
In short, the international character of Hong Kong’s universities is intact. While the Covid-19 pandemic and the national security law may have pushed some talent away, the Donald Trump administration in the US was an inflection point that induced paranoia, making American universities haemorrhage Chinese talent, some of whom were pushed to Hong Kong.
After the firing of Dr Hu Anming from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 2020, the FBI agent who accused Hu of spying admitted under oath that there was no evidence to back up his claims.
Similarly, the Department of Justice’s assumption that five mainland-born academics had engaged in nefarious activities turned out to be frivolous as all charges against them were dropped in July 2021. Unsurprisingly, back in 2019, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was already warning against “a toxic atmosphere of unfounded suspicion and fear”.
This is not to deny that technology theft has occurred in some instances, but it shows how government overreach can damage academic careers and the functioning of universities. Before the atmosphere turned toxic in 2018, more than 10 per cent of US inventions were made by scientists of ethnic Chinese origin, according to research by a senior associate dean at Harvard University. Government actions, in whatever country or jurisdiction, can at times thwart the academic research enterprise from doing innovative teaching and research.
Profiling scholars and scientists impairs the intellectual vitality and dedication of the academic research enterprise. University work carries a solemn responsibility to establish and confirm truth by way of the scientific method and, when necessary, to speak truth to power. This means prioritising professionalism over nationalism.
There is a choice for leading research universities in Hong Kong, on the mainland and overseas to either distinguish themselves as instruments of strategic competition within a toxic atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust, or as institutions for international peace and human progress based on an international convergence of mutual academic and professional interests for the global common goods.
Profiling based on ethnicity or nationality can create a self-fulfilling prophecy as professors become viewed first as locals, mainlanders or other nationals, rather than as professionals based on their academic and research discoveries, innovations and research accomplishments.
The best universities adhere to the highest values of the academy, values that the Hong Kong model of higher education has long fought to maintain. The merit of science-based research findings should not depend on the identity of the scientist. The warping of scientific findings by authoritarian systems during those dreadful parts of the 20th century should warn us not to fall prey to an identity politics of science in the metaverse of the 21st century.
As the world faces existential challenges, there is a danger of myths abounding about the sacred nature of any one model of higher education. Cross-border university communities operate best on the basis of respect and understanding. It ensures productive collaboration in an environment of academic freedom to address problems like climate change, pandemics, food insecurity, poverty and inequality, and other, unforeseen, challenges. That leaves no time for ethnic or national profiling in or outside academia.