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China tightens its grip on Hong Kong universities

When prodemocracy demonstrations erupted in Hong Kong in 2019, its publicly funded universities were hotbeds of unrest. A year later, five university presidents signed a statement supporting a law that would make such protests difficult if not impossible. Two did not sign the document, which endorsed the new National Security Law Beijing was about to pass: Wei Shyy of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Kuo Way of the City University of Hong Kong. Both universities have now announced their presidents will step down.

Kuo’s departure is timed to the end of his third 5-year contract in 2023, by which time he’ll be 72, dampening speculations about political pressure. But Shyy, 66, will resign in October 2022, a year before his contract ends. “Everybody is wondering what’s his rationale for stepping down a year early,” says Carsten Holz, a development economist at HKUST.

Many other Hong Kong academics are leaving, too. The city’s universities, among the best in Asia and long known for their academic freedom, are seeing a wave of resignations and departures as China tightens its grip in what one academic calls the “mainlandizing” of the universities. Three deans at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), including Gabriel Leung, who played an important role in Hong Kong’s successful fight against COVID-19, recently announced they are leaving early or not renewing contracts.

Although numbers are hard to come by, sources within the city’s universities—few of whom want to be named—say significant numbers of native Hong Kong scholars and Westerners at lower levels are leaving as well, troubled by declining academic freedom, attacks on those considered disloyal by pro-Beijing local media, “patriotic education” being imposed on their school-age children, and investigations under the National Security Law, which passed in June 2020. Whereas Hong Kong’s Basic Law, in effect since the territory passed from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, guarantees its universities autonomy and academic freedom, the new law called on the government to strengthen its guidance and supervision of the universities. It gave authorities new powers to punish vaguely defined offenses such as “secession” and “subversion.”

Some caution against reading too much into the upheaval. “There will be adjustments among Hong Kong universities,” given the changing political climate, says astronomer Sun Kwok, a former dean of science at HKU. But he believes China will recognize that HKU’s “diverse, multicultural academic staff” is a strength that will help advance the overall level of scholarship in China and the region.

Others are gloomy. “It’s sad for the universities and sad for the city,” says one tenured Western academic. “Three years ago I thought I would be here until I retire,” he says, but now he is keeping an eye out for opportunities to move. Another Western scholar predicts the trend will turn the city’s universities into “ciphers of the mainland China institutions.”

Critics say the shake-up at HKU, the territory’s oldest and most prestigious university, has been driven by Xiang Zhang, a physicist who became president in July 2018. Zhang is the first HKU head to have been born and educated through the undergraduate level in China. He later worked at the mechanical engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. HKU recently announced that his 5-year contract will be renewed in 2023.

Among top-level researchers parting ways with HKU are the former dean of science, U.K. ecologist Matthew Evans, who stepped down in October to take a position at United Arab Emirates University. He declined to comment for this article. The dean of social sciences, psychologist William Hayward, will leave at the end of his current contract in August 2022. Hayward, a New Zealand native, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

On 21 November, Gabriel Leung, HKU’s highly respected dean of medicine, announced he will step down next summer as well, even though his contract runs until July 2023. Since his appointment in 2013, Leung oversaw the faculty’s rise from 36th to 20th place in the Times Higher Education’s “clinical and health” rankings. A native Hong Konger, he was also one of the architects of Hong Kong’s “suppress and lift” strategy that alternately toughened and relaxed restrictions on social activities to help keep COVID-19 infections at a very low level.

Leung, 49, will become executive director for charities and community of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, overseeing the club’s Charities Trust, one of the world’s biggest philanthropic organizations. (Leung has a long-standing interest in social issues and is also a governor of the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest philanthropic funder of medical research.) Instead of answering questions from Science, Leung shared the email he sent to HKU staff and students announcing his departure “with a heavy heart.” He explained he would dedicate “the next stage of my work life addressing the ultimate challenge of the ‘unethical epidemic of inequalities.’”

Asked to respond to rumors that deans were told in advance their contracts would not be renewed, an HKU spokesperson wrote in an email to Science that “Deans vacate their posts upon contract completion” but can continue as members of the faculty. The spokesperson added: “It is our standard practice to conduct international searches for faculty deans.”

So far, few Westerners have been appointed to newly opened positions, however. Instead, they are attracting interest from mainland-born Chinese scholars, some currently in the United States where they feel increasingly unwelcome due to the U.S. Department of Justice’s China Initiative. Although both HKUST and City University have said they will search internationally for new presidents as well, critics believe candidates will have to be acceptable to the Chinese government—and that their political views will permeate the universities they will lead.

The changing political winds are influencing career decisions by junior academics as well, Holz and others say. Holz, who has been outspoken about threats to academic freedom in Hong Kong, says he has felt “no pressure because of what I’ve written. There’s been no interfering in my teaching or research.” But he acknowledges that not all of his colleagues have been so fortunate. Two HKUST scholars left Hong Kong abruptly earlier this year after pro-Beijing newspapers attacked them for comments made at conferences, he says. (The two could not be reached for confirmation.) These incidents leave “an underlying anger and tenseness in people,” Holz says.

As another Hong Kong academic puts it, “Everybody is wondering what the future holds for the city and the universities.”

Source: Science Mag