Hong Kong universities being ‘assimilated into China’, critics warn

CUHK centre in Shanghai seen as controversial by some, inevitable by others

七月 15, 2022
Mainland China and Hong Kong flags
Source: Getty

A leading Hong Kong institution has become the first to partner with a district-level authority in China to create a research spin-off on the nation’s mainland.

The move was described by the Chinese University of Hong Kong as a natural extension of existing ties, but has prompted critics to warn that universities in Hong Kong risk being “assimilated” into Chinese higher education.

In a ceremony last week formalising the establishment of the CUHK Shanghai Centre, vice-chancellor Rocky Tuan called its establishment “a key strategy for the university’s development plan on the mainland”.

“Our decades-old heritage as a bridge between China and the world, coupled with our strong international outlook mean we do not see it as a choice of ‘mainland China or’, but rather a complementary equation,” a spokesperson told Times Higher Education.

The centre will be a physical space to “promote exchanges between alumni, entrepreneurs, scholars and students from Shanghai and Hong Kong”, he said, noting many of CUHK’s 250,000-strong alumni community are on the mainland and “longstanding partnerships with major universities in Shanghai including Fudan and Shanghai Jiao Tong”.

But some academics have expressed concern over the implications of the move, which they said comes amid a tightening political climate in Hong Kong and a broader push by Beijing to bring the island’s institutions into its embrace.

“The speed to take back Hong Kong universities and assimilate them into mainland China by the [Chinese Communist Party] is quicker than I expected,” said Futao Huang, a higher education scholar at Hiroshima University, adding “there is little doubt that Hong Kong universities would eventually become part of national HE and research in mainland”.

He said that the CUHK move makes sense given its “explicit mission to contribute for mainland China” as well as the existing environment in Shanghai’s Yangpu district, which is home to “many good universities and research institutes”.

Still, he worried that “more restrictive measures” would be imposed on institutions from the island that do not collaborate with mainland China as they encounter pressure to “show their loyalty” to the CPC.

Philip Altbach, a professor at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, agreed that mainland authorities see Hong Kong’s universities as “a key element in the ‘sinofication’ of Hong Kong”.

“There is much debate concerning whether Hong Kong’s universities will, in time, simply be the same as other mainland Chinese universities – things do seem to be moving in that direction,” he said. “If Hong Kong’s universities lose their distinctiveness and characteristics of academic freedom, independence, and internal governance, they will of course be greatly weakened.”

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, struck a more upbeat note.

“Shanghai is as good a location as it can be on the mainland for a [Hong Kong] university to build an offshore operation” because of its “strong economy and relatively relaxed environment – by mainland standards – for scholarly collaboration”, he said.

But he also noted that “even universities in Shanghai are now getting more tightly controlled by the CCP”.

Amid a process that many scholars view as inevitable, greater collaboration between universities on both sides could potentially help institutions on the island manoeuvre within China’s tighter political control, some scholars have suggested.

“There have always been many mainland students doing doctoral research at both [the University of Hong Kong] and CUHK,” said Ruth Hayoe, a professor researching Chinese higher education at the University of Toronto.

“They are able to function well, with good international connections as well as a deep understanding of the Chinese system and where the red lines and constraints are and how to get around them.”




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