Academic freedom fears as China erodes Hong Kong funding divide

Dollars, not diktats, now seen as biggest risk to institutional autonomy in special administrative region

January 3, 2019
Hong Kong
Source: Getty

Scholars in Hong Kong fear that erosion of the research funding firewall between China and Hong Kong could diminish academic freedom in the region.

In a policy shift unveiled in May 2018, China announced that it would allow Hong Kong researchers to apply directly to Beijing for funding. The change followed a relaxation over the past decade whereby China funded more than a dozen “state key laboratories” in Hong Kong.

Another change saw researchers from both jurisdictions bankrolled from a joint scheme run by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and Hong Kong’s Research Grants Council. Such arrangements have eroded a funding firewall between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Many university leaders have welcomed the increased funding.

“We look forward to seeing more of these policy modifications,” said Wei Shyy, president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It will have impact in terms of the support we have to do basic research.”

But other scholars are cognisant of the impact that funding from Beijing could have on academic freedom.

Hong Kong university leaders say that they have considerably more institutional autonomy than their peers in places such as Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, not to mention mainland China itself – a trait that they say has helped the territory cultivate more top-200 universities than any other city apart from London.

Ian Holliday, vice-president of the University of Hong Kong, said that direct intervention by Chinese authorities remained unlikely. But he added that universities were vulnerable to “subtle” influences – ranging from mainland Chinese studying in the territory’s universities to alumni who wanted more engagement with the mainland.

“It’s very diffuse, but nevertheless quite powerful,” he said. “There are many forces in society that drive conformity with Beijing’s agenda.”

Professor Holliday said that professors running labs replete with postdocs and PhD students needed “big” money. “Increasingly that’s available from Beijing rather than Hong Kong," he said.

“Many of our professors would not want HKU to get a black mark because, and I’m speculating, it might jeopardise future funding streams. There are topics that maybe some academics choose not to pursue because they see their future in Hong Kong rather than elsewhere.”

Gerard Postiglione, coordinator of HKU’s Consortium for Higher Education Research in Asia, said that the Chinese political environment had “tightened up increasingly” and could affect Hong Kong universities’ standing in global rankings.

“Without a doubt, their success has been due to an open intellectual atmosphere, free global interchange and unimpeded academic and scientific cooperation,” he added.

Professor Postiglione said that he was frequently asked whether that tradition was at risk. “It’s something we don’t know,” he confessed.

“Hong Kong has its own Constitution. If it’s interpreted and defended in the way it was intended to be, the universities will remain as open and professionally autonomous as ever.

“If they have to closely integrate into the mainland university system, they may lose their edge in certain areas of the social sciences and the humanities. But if they retain academic openness and intellectual freedom, they won’t lose their edge. And there’s a great deal to gain in terms of generous research funding and opportunities to work with big data and artificial intelligence.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

I am more interested to know what specific conditions are attached with Beijing funding. I am even more interested to know whether HongKong would be less worried if funding is from Washington or London?
I'd be quite interesed to know (since the article doesn't say) if these are new cross-border funding streams in addition to the existing ones; or replacements for previous HK-only schemes. It would seem odd to complain about academia getting access to more money, but stranger things have happened when politics are involved.