Rocky Tuan: Hong Kong sits ‘enviably’ between China and the world

Hong Kong has ‘a special convening power’ that could attract partners from China and the Middle East, CUHK’s v-c tells Tiya Thomas-Alexander

June 14, 2023
Rocky Tuan at Chinese University of Hong Kong
Source: Getty

Browse the full Asia University Rankings 2023 results

Rocky Tuan left Hong Kong as an undergraduate student, and for years it was as if he never looked back. Starting as a chemistry major at a college in the US, he went on to become a biomedical scientist. His professional journey comprised stints in universities across the country in a variety of research scientist roles: he went from Kentucky to New York, Massachusetts to Maryland and lived in two different cities in Pennsylvania.

All the while, Tuan carried with him the words that his mother had said when he first left for university: “Do come back and serve Hong Kong at some point.”

“I always remembered that,” says Tuan. “In the back of my mind, I always thought, if there’s an opportunity, I certainly would take the challenge.”

Nearly half a century after he first left his home country, the opportunity arose and, in 2018, Tuan took up the role of vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), one of eight universities in the city-state and consistently ranked within the top 10 in Asia.

Having spent his academic career in the US, Tuan says that leading a public university in Asia has been “very refreshing”.

Higher education in Hong Kong receives generous public subsidies (according to CUHK’s latest annual report, 62 per cent of funding comes from the state), which is in contrast to education hotspots such as the US, where even state universities rely heavily on private funds.

Hong Kong’s universities and students are in an “enviable” position compared with private institutions and learners in the West, Tuan says. Graduates from CUHK usually leave university debt free. “Whatever money they make, they get to keep,” he explains. “I know that in the US, student debt can be a shackle for the rest of someone’s life. We don’t have that.”

The motivation for recruiting international students is purely educational, he says. “When we admit international students or non-local students, we are not doing it as a business proposition. We are not there to collect their tuition fees or to cross-subsidise our expenses.

“I think this funding certainty and operational licence that we have give us a very nice platform to really do the three things that all universities in the world are supposed to do: education, research and service,” says Tuan.

A ‘spiritual mission’

The founding fathers of the 60-year-old CUHK laid down the university’s mission as integrating China and the West, and today this extends to integrating China and the rest of the world, Tuan says. At its core, it feels like a “spiritual mission”. In practice, his role is to “fuse liberal arts education with the rigour and scholarship of traditional Chinese culture”. And now science and technology have become part of that fusion.

Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” relationship with China means that universities in the region have a “special mandate” from Xi Jinping’s government in Beijing, which Xi spelled out in 2022.

“The central government wants Hong Kong to be an international centre of excellence for technology and innovation. That’s the role of Hong Kong. And this fits right into what universities do, because we innovate and we invent.”

Tuan likens the position of Hong Kong to the neck of an hourglass connecting the two bulbs: China and the rest of the world. This gives Hong Kong “a special convening power”.

“As China now re-emerges from Covid and is now reconnecting and re-engaging with the world, I see a very big role for Hong Kong. Much bigger than ever before.”

But leading a university that is positioned so delicately can mean that Tuan sometimes has to walk a tightrope with China.

In December 2022, a proposal was tabled to restructure CUHK’s governing council, which would reduce by more than half the number of internal representatives such as students and faculty. Reports in local media linked the plans to the governing body’s displeasure with Tuan for being “too soft” on students during the 2019 pro-democracy protests – although this narrative was denied by the university. Scholars expressed concern that a rewriting of the governing structure could curtail academic freedom.

Earlier proposals to restructure the council in 2009 and 2016 were put on hold “due to various reasons”, says Tuan, noting that the 2022 proposal is the subject of ongoing discussions following taskforce recommendations delivered to the CUHK council earlier this year. His role as vice-chancellor of a public university is to “listen respectfully” to the views of stakeholders and carry out the university’s mission with as much support from them as possible, he says.

He expresses confidence in the constitution of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, as well as universities, in upholding academic freedom.

“Given that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are both written into the Basic Law, I know that this is a key consideration of our stakeholders.”

Shared interests

There are hints, though, that the university is forging a deeper relationship with the mainland. In July last year, CUHK launched a research spin-off in Shanghai, becoming the first Hong Kong university to form a higher education partnership with a district-level authority in mainland China. Later this year, Tuan says, CUHK will set up a Centre for Advanced Materials and Green Energy in Dongguan, a city governed by China in the Greater Bay Area, which encompasses Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao. Critics have warned that such collaborations could signal an “assimilation” with China, but Tuan says the potential to innovate in this way with China and the bay region is an advantage that distinguishes Hong Kong’s position.

China is not the only place Tuan is looking towards, however. He has his eye on developments further afield as well. Over the next 10 years and beyond, he predicts, the Middle East will emerge as a source of partnerships for universities in Hong Kong. “They’re rising fast, partly driven by their extremely good economy…they’re pouring a lot of money in. So they will have results, and you won’t see it in five years, but maybe 10 years. I think those areas for us would be of great interest.”

The world is “seemingly very divided”, Tuan says, and universities remain “one of the few mechanisms for collaborations to take place”.

He views the pursuit of knowledge as a common language among universities. But he adds that a lingua franca is not enough in itself to foster relationships – people need to come together in a shared physical space.

“There has to be a common platform in order for people to collaborate. If you all work on different things [platforms], then you never will meet.”

“I think CUHK has that soapbox. And hopefully that soapbox will get bigger and taller, to allow us to congregate other universities from other parts of the world…to talk.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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