Expats ponder career prospects in ex-colony

October 26, 1995

With 600 days to go before Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule, expatriate academics, who are reluctant to work under a Chinese dictator, are starting to reconsider their career options.

Stanley Vittoz, an expat lecturer in United States history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who regards the territory as home, said: "If the Chinese start to tamper with my work, things might get difficult and I might have to reconsider my options. I don't know how readily they will take to what I teach.

"Possibly things could change here, where I would think twice about what I said in public or among students, for fear that it might put my students in some sort of jeopardy."

While Mr Vittoz insisted he was not very concerned about 1997 he was happy to hold two foreign passports, one US, the other Canadian. Like many of his colleagues, Mr Vittoz gave Beijing credit for its cunning. Pressure, if applied, would be subtle, he said.

"There could be a weeding out process when China assumes sovereignty, but I do not think they would close a department overnight," he said. "Remuneration may be something that comes under scrutiny. A lot of people, especially foreigners, do talk about a diminishing of their supply of privileges. Retirement funds are all being reconsidered and recalculated, and if people are the right age, they might choose to leave sooner than they otherwise would."

Bryce McIntyre, lecturer in journalism at the Chinese University, said expat academics in Hong Kong were more relaxed about their career prospects in the territory now than they were five years ago (in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre), but concern had not been entirely quelled.

"After 1997, I think the regime will become more aggressive toward academics producing controversial material. My impression is that there may be repercussions, but more like a slap on the wrist than a jail sentence, because to the Chinese authorities, we are only small fish."

Mr McIntyre added that being "troublemakers" by tradition, expatriate lecturers had more grounds for being fearful of Beijing.

"My students, for example, are much more cautious than I am," he said. "As a journalist, I get in a lot of trouble for writing controversial stories. But they have extended families who take a keen interest in their careers, which makes them a lot more conservative."

Edward Chen, director of Lingnan College, famous for his bold predictions of what might befall the territory after the changeover of sovereignty in 1997, said: "Expat lecturers may be feeling uncomfortable, especially the British. They may see the end of a colonial age as the end of their career in Hong Kong. If they look at Malaysia and Singapore, in a very short period, the end of a colony meant complete localisation and nearly all expats were expelled."

But he added: "I think Hong Kong is different, because the cosmopolitan aspect will continue and we cannot produce all the expertise we need without the expats."

An expatriate department head at Hong Kong University shared the cautious optimism. Although he preferred not to be named to safeguard his future, he said: "Everyone is cagey and a bit nervous at the prospect of changeover, but provided China doesn't blow up, things will go well."

He welcomed the historic handing-over of power because: "Hong Kong is reconnecting with China - we could escape from the parochiality of our views, the blinkers could fall away.

"There are some outstanding people in China who are interested in coming here and we are looking to a real improvement and change in the quality of the work we are doing here," he said.

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