Hong Kong scholars split over ‘profiling of mainlanders’

Rising numbers of faculty from mainland China face atmosphere of ‘suspicion and mistrust’, researcher claims

August 6, 2023
Chinese opera mask
Source: iStock

Scholars who have moved to Hong Kong from mainland China face a “toxic” atmosphere, some fear, as other academics stress the importance of protecting the city’s research culture amid the demographic shift.

The number of mainland scholars and students at Hong Kong institutions has climbed steeply in recent years, with momentum building to raise the cap on non-local students – who officially cannot make up more than 20 per cent of enrolment – in the city’s eight main universities. Some scholars previously warned that Hong Kong universities are at risk of being assimilated to resemble their mainland counterparts.

Gerard Postiglione, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, has warned that such suspicions are giving rise to what he believes amounts to ethnic profiling of mainland scholars, comparing the academic environment in Hong Kong with that in the US, where top Chinese-born academics were accused of espionage.

In a recent editorial for the South China Morning Post, Professor Postiglione said universities had a “solemn responsibility” to pursue the truth using the scientific method – a mission that means “prioritising professionalism over nationalism”.

“There is a choice for leading research universities in Hong Kong...to either distinguish themselves as instruments of strategic competition within a toxic atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust, or as institutions for international peace and human progress.”

Laurie Pearcey, associate vice-president for external engagement at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said that while there were reports of Mandarin speakers in the city being targeted amid the social unrest in 2019, after the controversial National Security Law was passed, the atmosphere in Hong Kong had “substantially improved”.

“While Hong Kong is absolutely a Chinese city, it is also a uniquely international one. People are forgetting that Hong Kong’s international status is fundamental to its success,” he said.

With hundreds of thousands of Chinese students heading abroad for higher education, it is “hardly surprising” they would come to Hong Kong, with its “well-funded university system [and] entrenched meritocracy”, Mr Pearcey said.

He believed a bigger challenge was the “broader suite of untruths being peddled” about Hong Kong becoming “just another Chinese city”.

But it is a fine line, said Futao Huang, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University – and himself a mainland-China-born scholar.

“One of the important features of Hong Kong’s universities is diversity,” he said. “If they are overwhelmingly dominated by those coming from mainland China, [institutions] would become less attractive.”

Professor Huang said that the proportion of students and academics coming from the mainland “certainly matters” but that the greater issue was whether a demographic shift would translate into a more politicised and less academically free higher education system.

He thought that any discrimination mainland scholars faced in Hong Kong would be “negligible” compared with the benefits of employment there: “Compared to mainland China, they can engage in academic research more freely, enjoy a better living environment, have better access to international peers, and of course, avoid political influences on their research and daily life.”

Others, though, were more negative. “Small numbers of outsiders are okay, as is the case everywhere, but now they are very visible,” said one academic, who requested anonymity. He said some mainland scholars appeared to circumvent Hong Kong’s onerous, multi-year tenure process via “effectively nepotistic appointments”.

Still, the scholar was pessimistic the city’s universities would place more stringent limit on academics or students from the mainland.

“We are on the desired path and nothing will change. People simply have to ‘get with the programme’,” he said.


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