The eye on the tiger

June 20, 1997

At midnight on June 30, 155 years of British rule in Hong Kong cease. The handover to China raises complex questions for the colony's institutions, economy and citizens, with Hong Kong's thriving universities firmly at the core of its people's hopes and fears. The THES looks at the issues involved

As the former vice chancellor of Hong Kong University, Wang Gungwu was well placed to observe the British colony preparing to return to its original masters. He tells Harriet Swain why he is optimistic about its future under Chinese rule.

When Wang Gungwu was a young undergraduate from Malaysia attending university in China his studies were interrupted by the Communist takeover. Now, 50 years later, he is coordinating research into China's moves towards a market economy.

While his passion is for studying Chinese politics and history, all too often he ends up living it. In his case, the distinction does not mean much anyway. He sees it all as grist to the mill of greater knowledge about how the world works.

Rarely was this more true than during the decade he spent as vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong. There he witnessed the unique spectacle of a British colony preparing to return to its original masters. "The ten years I was in Hong Kong were the most interesting years of my life," he says. "Everything that happened every day was of interest and I had to get the university to develop in the midst of all that.

"Being by profession a historian, I was interested in just about everything that was going on - growing political consciousness, rapid economic growth in spite of political uncertainties and social and cultural changes among people forced to make a lot of choices in their minds and lives about how to become a part of China and, if not, how to get out and, if they got out, where to go."

For a while, Professor Wang was closely involved with the changes taking place in Hong Kong, serving on the executive council under the former British governor David Wilson. This political role ceased after Chris Patten's arrival in 1992. But his position as head of the colony's most prestigious academic institution still gave him a bird's-eye view of the impact of these changes.

This shifting gaze, fitting individual to global experience in a kind of jigsaw, has dominated his work. In his editor's introduction to Global History and Migrations, published this year, Professor Wang recognises that "globalisation turns people back to the particular, the regional and the local". It is something he has demonstrated personally. His work has traced the movements of people and cultural identities across sweeps of the globe but he has not been afraid of drawing lessons from his own life.

Born in Indonesia in 1930, he was brought up in Malaysia by Chinese parents who had decided to settle there. He studied at the National Central University in Nanking, China, for a year and a half, but was driven back to Malaysia by the arrival of the Communists in 1948. His studies continued at the University of Malaya in Singapore, topped by a PhD at the University of London.

After more than ten years' lecturing at the University of Malaya, he moved with his wife to Australia, as professor of Far Eastern history at the Australian National University in Canberra. He is now director of the new East Asian Institute - a key research body based at the University of Singapore - looking at political, social and cultural issues across all the East Asian states.

He still keeps a house in Canberra. His heart, though, is with the Chinese. They have been a consistent theme throughout this life on the move, forming the basis of more than 100 books and articles over the years. His work shows the Chinese are not a coherent bunch but comprise a host of different peoples, whose experiences vary considerably depending where and when they settled parts of China and Southeast Asia.

Western thinkers, he says, sometimes generalise too much about China, failing to see its complexity and forcing it into their own perspectives. Foreign views of Hong Kong have shown similar failings. "A lot of people outside would be delighted for Hong Kong to fail because it would show Chinese people are stupid and cannot organise themselves," he says. "The majority of people in Hong Kong want it to succeed. They just want it to be prosperous. It is interesting to see how many more people outside Hong Kong are ideological about it."

Professor Wang says Hong Kong Chinese are more worried about trade, education and the high cost of housing. Britain, too, must learn to relax about political issues they can no longer control. "What's needed now is for the new British foreign minister to find a way around the unnecessary, childish bickering that has been going on for the past couple of years," he says. "British relations should get on to a new tack. It was under Major that relations between Britain and China became more difficult and I think Blair will make things easier. The Chinese have been increasingly isolating their criticisms of Britain via Patten. Once he goes, there will be less excuse for the kind of silliness that both sides seem to be indulging in."

He is reasonably optimistic about what is happening in Hong Kong and has few worries about its effect on his former university. "We dealt with China all the time I was there and they were extremely helpful and thought highly about our universities," he says. "Students and staff have been preparing themselves for some time. All they know is that it's a delicate situation in which everyone has to be careful."

But this care would apply more because of the newness of the experience than any threat to academic freedom, he says. "I suspect some of the art and social science subjects will be under closer scrutiny than ever before so people will be much more careful with their research results," he says. "They will have to check and double check before they say anything simply because it's sensitive. This can have an inhibiting effect. But this is an exceptional case. These aren't normal times and this isn't a normal country. Everyone has to feel their way around a bit, certainly for the first couple of years."

He acknowledges that there is a fear that self-censorship will increase but says he and other academics will be keeping an eye on this. "From what I hear so far it seems to be unlikely," he says. "The same degree of self-censorship will be there because it has been there for a while but from the way it looks it shouldn't get worse."


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