The death of Hong Kong?Feb 26, 2023
In 1996, I was offered an untenured post in the department of philosophy at the University of Hong Kong. What made the offer particularly attractive is that I could live in a large subsidised flat on Hong Kong Island, with a balcony overlooking the ocean. The main reason I was offered such beautiful accommodation, I came to realise, is that I am a white man from Canada.
Shortly after I arrived, a colleague from Hong Kong visited my flat and said – with barely concealed resentment – that he was not eligible for such a flat. Even more surprising, another colleague from mainland China told me the same thing. It’s not just that locals were deprived of university flats. Even ethnic Chinese from a different country were not eligible.
Shortly after the handover in 1997, I was deservedly kicked out of my flat because the new administration put an end to such racist policies: only senior staff were eligible for university flats, regardless of ethnic heritage. But informal discrimination against mainland Chinese continued unabated, even though Hong Kong was now part of China.
Professors at the University of Hong Kong from mainland China complained of being shut out from decision-making posts by the leaders of the university. Even Hong Kong colleagues tended to shut out mainlanders from social interaction. Academic writing in Chinese was regarded as worthless in the evaluation and promotion exercises. Mainland Chinese colleagues who advocated more academic collaboration with the mainland kept their views to themselves.
In everyday social life, it felt like Hong Kong was an independent country in people’s minds. We hardly ever heard any Mandarin on the streets. And my students from Hong Kong had only negative stereotypes about China: it was a country ruled by “evil Communists” and Chinese culture could be distilled to a history of oppression, feudalism, and patriarchy. The only thing to learn from China is that there was nothing to learn from China.
Yet Hong Kong continued in this vein after the handover. To the extent primary and secondary students learned anything about China, it was almost all negative. What other country, I wondered, has an educational system that teaches children to dislike their own country? It’s a good idea to learn critical thinking, but not if it means only criticism, with no appreciation of what’s good and beautiful.
As a scholar fascinated by Chinese culture, it became a bit frustrating, and I was happy to accept a job offer at Tsinghua University in 2004, even with a big pay cut. It was a good opportunity to immerse myself in Chinese academia and to learn more about Chinese politics and philosophy.
In 2017, I was honoured to accept a post as dean of the school of political science and public administration at Shandong University. It’s a large faculty with over 1000 students and 80 professors that trains students and provincial cadres to serve the country as Communist Party officials. Such posts are typically reserved for Chinese citizens and members of the Chinese Communist Party (I’m neither), given the political sensitivity of the work.
Shandong University is the premier university in a province of more than one hundred million people that is famed for being the home of Confucian culture. I was appointed as dean not because of a commitment to China’s official Marxist ideology but rather because of my scholarly work on Confucianism. I was supposed to promote Confucianism via teaching and research. As a foreigner, I was also supposed to help internationalise our faculty and upgrade our academic output according to international standards.
Things didn’t go according to plan, needless say, but my post as dean provided a unique vantage point on Chinese academia and politics (I wrote about my experience in The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University, to be published by Princeton University Press in March 2023).
After five years as dean, I realised it was time to return to a regular academic job with teaching and writing. To my surprise, I was offered a post as chair professor of political theory with the school of law at the University of Hong Kong. With more academic freedom in Hong Kong – not to mention a subsidised university apartment with an ocean view offered to senior staff regardless of ethnic heritage — I was glad to accept.
After a few months in Hong Kong, I’m glad to report some positive impressions compared to twenty-five years ago. The air is much cleaner. The music scene is lively and the restaurant scene is vibrant and diverse. The world’s best public transport system has been extended.
I realise I should speak Cantonese, but I’m still struggling. If English doesn’t work, I speak Mandarin and most people are happy to engage (though I’m told there was discrimination against mainlanders who didn’t dare to speak their own language during the 2019 protests). There are many more trilingual speakers in Hong Kong compared to the colonial days.
And there seems to be more concern for social injustice: in the past, I did some volunteer work for a non-governmental organisation that sought to protect the interests of domestic workers, and I realised that employers had almost total impunity to abuse their workers in the privacy of their own homes. But now, employers are punished and shamed for physical abuse. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s progress.
Needless to say, it’s not all sunshine. There is still a huge gap between rich and poor. The political atmosphere, as we all know, is much more constrained. But the key elements of Hong Kong’s autonomy – the rule of law and the freedom of speech – are much better protected than up north. We have unrestricted access to the internet. Much of what’s published about Chinese politics in Hong Kong’s newspapers could not be published in mainland Chinese media. And I can order books from abroad without worrying about confiscation at the border.
So I will continue to observe and to learn, but for the moment, I feel lucky to be in Hong Kong.
Article first published in EJ Insight in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on 23rd February 2023.