Hong Kong university to close ‘Mecca for China studies’

Invaluable Mao era materials will be digitised on an open-access platform

January 4, 2021
Source: Chinese University of Hong Kong archive
A Chinese newspaper from 1949

A centre known as the “Mecca for China studies” will be closed, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) confirmed after speculation about the fate of the archive and the resignation of one of its co-directors. However, its materials will be preserved and many posted online after a restructuring. 

CUHK’s Universities Service Centre for China Studies (USC), established in 1963, houses an invaluable collection documenting the country’s political evolution, including 80,000 books and thousands of rare newspapers, magazines and local village records. Many materials were brought over a land border that, at that time, separated Mao-ruled China and the British colony of Hong Kong.

It was an early launching pad for international sinologists such as Jerome Cohen, the USC’s first director and now a law professor at New York University. Ezra Vogel, who was a young Hong Kong-based scholar when he started working with the USC, later became one of Harvard University’s top Asia experts. Professor Vogel, who died last month, wrote in 2005 that “the USC became the core of the courses on contemporary China that were taught at universities around the world”.

As the physical centre closes, USC’s materials will be preserved and integrated into the university’s library system over an 18-month restructuring. Many documents will be digitised into a text-searchable format and uploaded to an open-access website.

In Hong Kong’s tense political climate, where a national security law has sparked worries about academic freedom, the public and media speculated that politics were at play, especially after media reports that the centre’s co-director, Pierre Landry, had stepped down and would be replaced by Chiu Chi-yue, the social science dean. There were also concerns that the centre could lose its academic autonomy.

CUHK confirmed Professor Landry’s resignation but responded in a statement that “any rumour claiming that the new arrangements result from external pressure is entirely unfounded”. It said in an open letter that “we want to assure you, at the outset, that this administrative arrangement will not compromise the integrity of and access to the USC collection”.

Alan Chan, CUHK’s provost and J. S. Lee professor of Chinese culture, told Times Higher Education that a need for digitisation drove the decision for change.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened our resolve to expand our e-learning capacity and invest in digital resources for pedagogical and research innovation. The digitisation of the USC collection is but one example of the work we are doing in CUHK,” he said, adding that the university was a champion of “open scholarship”.

“When completed, the collection will be available to far more users for both teaching and research, which should be helpful especially to those who lack the support for international travel,” he said.

A CUHK spokesperson told THE that the arrangements had been contemplated for some time, over fears about damage to increasingly fragile paper materials, which currently can only be accessed in person.

However, the move has sparked debate about the value of physical spaces in an increasingly digital world.

Patricia Thornton, associate professor of Chinese politics at the University of Oxford, wrote in a series of tweets about her experiences at USC over the past years. “The beauty of the centre was the fact that the materials were there, on site, being used by researchers from all over the world,” she wrote. “And it’s not possible to capture how the set-up, as it was, promoted academic synergies that a simple collection in a library could/will not.”


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