Hong Kong universities: chronicle of a death foretold


We already know, since the beginning of history, the names of the victims and the culprits. Yet, as in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel, no one seems to care …

Between Covid-19, a new law on national security and police repression of pro-democracy movements, the universities of Hong Kong are currently increasing the offers intended to retain young Hong Kong people who would withdraw from their admission to a foreign university for health reasons, visa, or simply for the uncertainty related to the international context. Scholarships, financial aid and other incentives are also offered to foreign students who would like to change destination and fall back to Hong Kong because of its relative health security and its control of the epidemic.

The effective and admirable communication of universities such as Hongkong University, Chinese University of Hongkong or Baptist University in reality hides a structural and deep crisis.

Political context

With its status as a special administrative region, Hong Kong is a Chinese territory enjoying semi-autonomy. When it was handed over to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, this former British colony had obtained from the Chinese Communist Party the commitment to guarantee for 50 years the maintenance for its citizens of the lifestyle, the political regime and fundamental freedoms (expression , press, association, etc.) which they had enjoyed until then.

The coming to power of Xi Jinping in 2012 as party secretary, then in 2013 as president of the People’s Republic of China, was a game-changer. Beijing seems in a hurry to bring the Hong Kong people up to the standards of mainland China, without waiting for 2047. The principle “One country, two systems” seems seriously compromised.

The first strong signal of this change of tempo was in 2012 the proposed reform of the school curriculum, aiming to introduce the national curriculum (in particular the teaching of Chinese socialism, morals and “patriotism”) in schools of Hong Kong. It was this measure that triggered the first student demonstrations that initially obtained, under the leadership of the very young Joshua Wong , a withdrawal from the reform.

Protests resumed in 2014, in response to an electoral law that considerably curtailed the exercise of the right to vote, by limiting its expression to candidates dubbed by Beijing. The movement continues and grows stronger until 2017, a time known as the “Umbrella Revolution”, driven primarily by students determined to maintain democracy in Hong Kong. Since then, despite the violence of the repression, despite the arrest and conviction of most of the leaders of the movement, despite the censorship of the local press, the Hong Kong youth, supported by a large part of the academic world and media, remains strongly mobilized.

During the summer of 2020, the situation continued to deteriorate with the adoption on June 30 of the National Security Act which now allows the authorities to severely repress “subversion, separatism, terrorism and collusion with outside forces ”. Many activists have just been arrested for “inciting secession”, risking life imprisonment. The population is pursuing the resistance as best it can, for example by buying millions of copies of the titles of the Next Digital press group, openly critical of the Chinese regime.

Others prefer to leave the boat before it is too late. Caught in the dilemma between revolution or emigration, the five characters in the documentary by British director Matthew Torne “Last Exit To Kai Tak” (2018), disappointed by the failure of the demonstrations for democracy in 2014, represent the unease of student youth. Hong Kong.

University assets

Since the end of the 1990s, the figures for outgoing student mobility have been increasing. According to Unesco , the number of young Hong Kong people abroad for their studies this year is 36,442, or just over 12% of the total number. They were 3875 in 1962. For obvious linguistic and historical reasons, they are mainly in the United Kingdom, but also in Australia, the United States and Canada. Very few travel to mainland China, or even the rest of Asia. The current political tensions are not the only cause in this growing disaffection of Hong Kong students for their universities, however prestigious.

In just a few decades, Hong Kong has certainly succeeded in establishing with its eight public universities an international academic center of excellence for students and researchers from Asia, Europe and North America, but this has been possible thanks to the singularity of its status. The use of English as the language of instruction, the integration of its campuses as open spaces in the heart of the city, the vitality and freedom of its media and its publishing industry have been considerable assets.

Above all, the proximity of the People’s Republic of China has made this sui generis territory an unparalleled place of observation and analysis for sinologists around the world. Its universities, heirs to the tradition of the British education system, have been able to recruit and retain a teaching staff of international rank and thus rise to the first places in all the major international rankings.

For example, the more than 100 years old Hong Kong University was in 2020 at the 35th place of the Times Higher Education and the 22nd of the QS ranking worldwide. To encourage the new generation of foreign researchers to come and settle in Hong Kong, the Research Grants Council launched in 2009 the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme , a program of more than 150 annual doctoral scholarships, intended to strengthen the attractiveness of the region to a time when global competition was starting to intensify for scientific talent.

Declining international attractiveness

However, this international recognition has not made Hong Kong a real world “hub”. If the incoming mobility is around 37,000 international students, it is mainly young people from mainland China (31,113), followed at a distance by Korean (1,273) and Indian (617) students. In 2016, less than 1% of foreign students were non-Asian and 3% Asian non-Chinese students. According to the French Embassy in China, “the population of Chinese students has multiplied by 16 in 20 years”. As for young Europeans and Americans, they are now directly targeting the great universities of Beijing or Shanghai, whose reputation is well established, thus avoiding the Hong Kong detour.

With the handover, Hong Kong transformed its international strategy to gradually become the platform for preparing thousands of Chinese high school graduates from “Mainland” for graduate studies in the English-speaking countries of the West.

Fleeing the excessively selective system of “gaokao” (competitive entrance examination for Chinese higher education) or doubting the quality and integrity of local universities, the families of the People’s Republic of China who have the opportunity – the new classes mediums that have emerged from the economic development of the past 30 years – prefer to fund a prestigious Hong Kong university for undergraduate studies before considering a move to North America, Europe or Australia.

The massive arrival of Chinese students and the announced restriction of academic freedom and other fundamental freedoms will permanently change the balance on university campuses. A survey published last May by the Chinese University of Hong Kong revealed that more than half of Hong Kong people between the ages of 15 and 24 are considering emigration. HKU and Baptist University are starting to fire professors who openly campaign for democracy movements. Due to the health crisis, most of the campuses are closed to the public sine die.

If in 2012, in 2014, in 2017 and again in 2020 the young Hong Kong people, like David’s face to Goliath, were able to challenge the Chinese communist power, it is partly because of the educational system in which they grew up. The end of its singularity will perhaps make Hong Kong “a Chinese city like any other”, to use the words of Martin Lee , but it risks making its universities less competitive than the others, deserted by its best students and researchers.

Author Bio: Alessia Lefebure is Deputy Director, Director of Studies at the School of Advanced Studies in Public Health (EHESP)