Talking leadership 20: Joseph Hun-wei Lee on Macao-China relations

The president of Macau University of Science and Technology discusses overhauling engineering education and the differences between Macao and Hong Kong 

April 8, 2022
Joseph Hun-wei Lee
Source: Getty
Joseph Hun-wei Lee, when he worked at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

The Chinese administrative region of Macao has a similar legal set-up to Hong Kong, but in many ways it is diametrically opposed to its neighbour.

Known as the “Las Vegas of Asia”, Macao's historic centre is also a UNESCO world heritage site and the city is part of a competitive new research commercialisation hub.

Joseph Hun-wei Lee, president of Macau University of Science and Technology (MUST), tells Times Higher Education how his institution is helping the region shift away from its economic reliance on gambling dollars, and why he thinks Macao has a better relationship with the Chinese central government than Hong Kong.

Pivoting to innovation

Lee, a civil engineer who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and worked briefly at the University of Delaware before returning to his native Hong Kong, has been heading up MUST since January 2021. He says the university has a crystal-clear role to play in the Chinese central government’s plans for the Greater Bay Area, which covers Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao.

“We are one of two universities that have been designated by the central government to contribute to the development of innovation technology in the Greater Bay Area,” he says. “We are expected to act as one of the nodes and specifically to develop a high-quality base for technology transfer [and] commercialisation of technology – so it’s not just research and development but contributing to driving the economy.”

To that end, he is overhauling MUST’s engineering programme to equip students with a “more interdisciplinary mindset, because these days technology changes so rapidly”.

“I think engineers need to be exposed to other things like entrepreneurship, like communication, like design thinking,” he says. “We need to better prepare engineers for the new innovation-led economy.”

Although gambling has made Macao one of the richest places on earth, many would be repelled by the dazzle of a super-sized Las Vegas. Lee prefers to use the word “gaming” over “gambling”, and he is proud of the region: “You would be amazed. The luxury and the experience!”

He doesn’t believe its reputation damages his chances of hiring international staff or students, pointing out that Macao also has a rich cultural heritage stemming from its Portuguese and Chinese influences. Furthermore, the region is attractive to international scholars because it can offer the benefits of Chinese academia, “without the complications of geopolitics”, he says. By which he means the cooling relations between China and the US.

Is he not concerned that the casinos encircling his campus might tempt his students away from their studies and into debt?

“Although we’re surrounded by casinos, it’s not a problem for us,” he says. MUST has “pretty good discipline”, he adds; most of its students stay on campus and are engaged by their courses. Although he admits that the institution is “constantly keeping an eye on this [issue]”.

Two regions, one system

While Hong Kong was for several years beset with protests at what many describe as China’s creeping power grab over the region, Macao – which also has the “one country, two systems” agreement – has been more accepting of Chinese rule. For Lee, this is a good thing.

“In Hong Kong, the entire city life was disrupted. I was in Hong Kong during the protests," he says. "I’m glad at least to see the city restored to order because what we went through was really almost lawlessness.”

“To expect law and order is not an unreasonable thing,” he adds.

Macao has a “deeper historical connection” with the mainland than Hong Kong does, Lee explains, helped by the fact that its official language is Chinese.

He says Macao can be seen as a midway between mainland China and Hong Kong: “The people in Macao appreciate the return to sovereignty and I would say in general have a better understanding of mainland China.”

There was some push back in Macao last year, however, when journalists at the public broadcaster were ordered to promote “patriotism, respect and love” for China. At least six resigned. The “one country, two systems” formula in Hong Kong and Macao promises freedoms not afforded in mainland China, including freedom of the press.

As a leader of an institution training the next generation of journalists, what does Lee think of the new editorial rules?

“We look at national patriotism as something positive,” he says.

“As with any country, as sovereignty has returned to China, then rightly so [you should] know your country…at least to have an understanding of the country. Basic civic education, patriotism. We look at it positively.”

He adds: “In fact, in 2019, MUST started implementing a flag-raising ceremony for three important occasions every year, even before this was compulsory."

But, having spent time in the US, he must know that American journalists would be horrified at being told to promote the government?

“This is very pointedly at my background,” he says. “With journalism, the freedom to report is a good thing, but I don’t see this as a conflict with promoting certain national values.

“In the old days in Hong Kong, even when I was a kid, at the beginning of each movie, you have the Queen, right. So I guess in the old days in the UK, you had that, too?”

The Chinese government does not “want to interfere, but if you create a situation they feel is out of control, they probably would do”, he adds.

From the US to Hong Kong

Lee did not grow up expecting to be an academic. Neither of his parents was educated but he won a scholarship to MIT when he was 17 and was influenced by “some of the best minds”. After briefly working in the US, he returned to Hong Kong because “I didn't see myself in suburban America”.

Vision is the key to being a good university leader, he believes: “I’m not saying I’m a good leader, but the leaders I’ve seen that I aspire to be like…first of all the vision is very important. You need to articulate the vision.”

“Academics in general are very special people,” he adds. “If you convince them, then they will support you, even if they didn’t support you at the beginning…academics are very different from businessmen.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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