Hong Kong academia is well past its inflection point

In a recent article in University World News titled “Hong Kong higher education reaches an inflection point”, Gerard Postiglione at Hong Kong University and Philip Altbach reported on the current state of Hong Kong academia. The view from across town, where this author is a faculty member at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), differs.

In my view, Hong Kong academia is not as professional as professors Postiglione and Altbach make it out to be and would appear to be well past any inflection point.

Postiglione and Altbach write that in 2012 “shared governance seemed to work reasonably well in Hong Kong, with considerable authority vested in the faculty, but with strong administrative leadership as well” and the “organisational equilibrium has [since] not significantly shifted”. At HKUST, there is no shared governance.

The Senate is not a faculty senate but an administrators’ committee with two-thirds of its members being members by virtue of their administrative appointments. Every administrator, from president to department head, is chosen in a top-down manner. Faculty members do not determine the hiring of new colleagues.

Department faculty meetings and school board meetings are venues to distribute administrative information and directives. Faculty members have no formal voice in decision-making.

There is no labour union or other organisation representing faculty members’ interests. HKUST is based on Western university models but filled with new meaning.

The fortunes of academia at HKUST depend on a handful of administrators under a university council whose members are political appointees. This might even be beneficial to academia.

More than half of HKUST faculty members likely grew up in mainland China and many will be members of the CCP (the ‘Chinese Communist Party’). Having sworn an oath to carry out CCP decisions, strictly observe Party discipline and never betray the Party, a significant number of HKUST’s faculty members could well face a conflict of interest between CCP versus academic objectives.

Authority concentrated in the hands of university administrators would then be a blessing in disguise.

‘Academic freedom’

Postiglione and Altbach write that: “Thus far, however, there has been no government clampdown on lectures, classroom discussion, seminars, academic conferences, research or scholarship – but the kind of academic freedom protected in the past is very much in question.” (They do not specify what “the kind of academic freedom protected in the past” consists of, nor what makes them think it is now in question.)

They also find “no indication of a significant exodus of university academics”. The reality at HKUST is that academic freedom may not be an issue in the natural sciences, engineering or business studies, but in the School of Humanities and Social Science it is, and academics are leaving.

The way this works in Hong Kong is that one or both of the two ‘newspapers’, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po – both controlled by the CCP – launches an attack on an academic of their choice: Professor A participated in event X several years ago(!) and wouldn’t that justify investigation under the ‘National Security Law’ (imposed on Hong Kong by the mainland’s rubberstamp ‘National People’s Congress’ on 30 June 2020)?

When Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po zero in on a target, Hong Kong government ministers jump into action. When the target is an academic, the academic knows their time in Hong Kong is limited.

Two of my colleagues in HKUST’s division of social science – both repeatedly targeted – just left or, perhaps more accurately, just fled. (More colleagues, for various stated reasons, have suddenly left or are in the process of leaving.)

Support for academic freedom by university administrators remains substantial. In his September 2000 welcome email to staff and students, HKUST President Wei Shyy wrote: “We remain steadfast in our support for academic freedom... and scholarly endeavours.”

And in March 2021, in an email to all staff and students on “Our Position Regarding Teaching, Research and Individual Conduct”, the president wrote: “Underpinning our activities as members of the university is academic freedom, a principle so fundamental that it is enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 137: ‘Educational institutions of all kinds may retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom’.”

But when put to the test, academic freedom crumbles.

In June 2021, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po ran articles titled “Exposé of criminal evidence of the US employing a thousand university students in Hong Kong to participate in demonstration as riot ‘white rats’” and “American research incites protests, brainwashes university students” attacking an (ethnic Chinese) colleague who had left HKUST in September 2019 and fellow researchers from the University of Munich, the University of Chicago, Harvard University and the London School of Economics for their research into student participation in perfectly legal, police-approved demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Wen Wei Po identified “three major crimes of incitement”. Under the ‘National Security Law’, this is code for arrest. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s ‘chief executive’ and thereby chancellor of HKUST, chimed in by saying Hong Kong universities are “penetrated by foreign forces” intent on “brainwashing” students.

HKUST leadership’s response consisted of a spokesperson declaring that the research was originally approved by its Human Research Ethics Committee, but the approval was revoked after the panel found out in October 2019 that the methodology used differed from the proposal; the “university” then asked the authors in late 2019 to remove all references to its approval; and the colleague had left the university in September 2019.

The incident shows the following.

• According to Wen Wei Po, HKUST’s Human Research Ethics Committee “received an enquiry about a research project in October 2019”. At that point, only a working paper of the research is in the public realm. Two years later, in June 2021, when this working paper is finalised and appears as a journal article, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po launch their diatribe right after the publication date in the journal. So, somebody keeps tab on Hong Kong academics’ research, including their working papers (dated June 2019). Somebody is also sifting through messages that the authors posted on social media in the past. Who is doing this and who lodged the enquiry?

• An ‘enquiry’ was sufficient to make HKUST ‘revoke’ the project approval; the decision-makers hid behind the university label. The American, English and German institutions saw no reason to act, nor did the European Union as grant provider.

• There was no formal investigation within HKUST of potential wrongdoing by the researchers. (The colleague was criticised in an internal WeChat group for conducting the research and reportedly forced out of their continuing research projects at HKUST by administrators.)

• Surveillance now happens in real time. At the point of the initial inquiry only a working paper of the research was in the public realm. When the research finally appears in print in an academic journal, the American Economic Review: Insights, in June 2021, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po latch on with a diatribe in the same month.

For faculty members in HKUST’s School of Humanities and Social Science, the message is clear. Some have exited. Most of the remaining colleagues in the School of Humanities and Social Science are frightened.


Inciting ‘fear’ is a key tool in the CCP’s fight to subdue and silence. Two decades ago, Perry Link, then at Princeton University in the US, identified the advantages of vague language in inducing self-censorship in China studies: “A vague accusation frightens more people. [...] Clarity serves the purpose of the censoring state only when it wants to curb a very specific kind of behaviour; when it wants to intimidate a large group, vagueness works much better.”

The ‘National Security Law’ is extraordinarily vague. HKUST administrators are still searching for the much proclaimed “red lines”, invisible, never publicly specified, probably non-existent imaginary red lines that stand testimony to the new state of affairs under which Hong Kong academia now operates. Rule of law is replaced by state terror designed to have everyone second-guess the emperor’s wishes (or, easier, shut up).

Within just six months, more than 100,000 formal accusations of ‘violating the National Security Law’ have been raised with Hong Kong’s thought police. Have the students in my classes reported on me?

One doesn’t have to be in Hong Kong to be affected: China scholars are reluctant to set foot in Hong Kong and China. In a June 2021 ChinaFile survey of US-based, China-focused scholars, journalists, former diplomats and civil society workers – some of whom are citizens of the People’s Republic of China – only 44% responded that they would “definitely” or “probably” travel to China once COVID restrictions are lifted; 40% opted for “definitely not” or “probably not” while the remainder were unsure.

Paradoxically, academia in Hong Kong is both thriving and dead.

It is thriving under a regime that is willing to pay for the research and development that it needs in order to stay in power, relying on a faculty that buys into the “China’s rejuvenation” story or is conditioned to obedience.

It is dead in that what is left is a regime-directed factory of higher education. (Which is why, as this author has argued before, university rankings should never mix institutions in free societies with institutions under totalitarian regimes.)

A spokesperson for the University of Hong Kong summarised the situation of Hong Kong academia as: “There are no boundaries to research and studies, provided that they are within the law.”

Conveniently, today’s ‘laws’ can easily be found in the complementary copies of Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po distributed to HKUST’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. They’ll even tell you when you are next in the firing line.

Carsten A Holz is professor in the social science division, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. E-mail: carstenholz@gmail.com.