Xi Jinping visit stresses universities’ cross-border role

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Hong Kong from 30 June – his first foray outside mainland China since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 – emphasised the city’s role in contributing to China’s main economic and development aims, including the cross-border role of Hong Kong’s universities and research for China’s technology and innovation goals.

The visit, under tight security and with most local media barred from covering the events, was timed for the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China as well as the swearing in of a new Hong Kong administration under chief executive John Lee on 1 July and was seen by academics in Hong Kong as an assertion, not just of Chinese control of the city, but closer alignment between policies in Hong Kong and the mainland.

Xi said in his speech on 1 July that Hong Kong “has leveraged its role as an important window and bridge connecting the Chinese mainland with the world and has thus made an irreplaceable contribution to the miracle of long-term, steady and fast economic development of the country [China].”

He added: “Hong Kong has become an integral part of the country’s overall development and actively aligned with national development strategies. It has continued to maintain its strengths of being highly free and open and compatible with international rules.”

Xi’s speech was seen as reflecting the tone for Beijing’s longer-term policy for Hong Kong but particularly for investors and talent in Hong Kong, according to Lau Siu-kai, emeritus professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank in the city headed by a former senior Beijing official.

On 28 June, just before his visit to Hong Kong, Xi had emphasised during an inspection tour in Wuhan, Hubei Province, that scientific and technological self-reliance and self-improvement are the “foundation of a country’s prosperity and security”.

Xi said: “The Party Central Committee attaches great importance to scientific and technological innovation and implements the strategy of rejuvenating the country through science and education and innovation-driven development.

“If every city, every high-tech development zone, every science and technology enterprise, every scientific research worker can solidly promote scientific and technological innovation around the development direction determined by the country, then we will surely be able to achieve the set goals.”

Beijing has set the goal of becoming a global science and innovation power by 2050.

Visit to research centre

Nancy Ip, a professor of life sciences, who has been announced as the incoming Vice-Chancellor of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) from October 2022 – the first woman to head a public university in Hong Kong – said the Chinese president “attaches great importance to Hong Kong’s innovation and technology (I&T) development and progress”.

She accompanied Xi as he made an official visit to the Hong Kong Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park.

Ip, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and one of 36 Hong Kong deputies to China’s National People’s Congress, is director of the centre established in 2020 with Hong Kong government funding for innovation. She noted Xi had shown interest in the centre’s research on Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).

“It is estimated that China currently has 10 million AD patients, the highest prevalence in the world, and this number is expected to grow further with an ageing population. It is foreseeable that this disease will impose a great impact on the country’s social and economic development,” she said in remarks carried by official Chinese media.

“President Xi both recognised our research results and lauded the significance of our work. He also encouraged us to strengthen collaborations with institutes and universities in the Mainland and translate our research findings into therapeutic applications to benefit society,” she added.

“We are galvanised by his support and will expedite the translation of our scientific research to proactively take part in the country’s science and technology development.”

Xi addressed more than 30 Hong Kong scientists, researchers and young entrepreneurs, according to Hong Kong’s Chinese-language Ta Kung Pao newspaper, which added that this “demonstrated the importance and acknowledgement placed on Hong Kong’s I&T development and the expectation of Hong Kong contributing to the country’s development in science and technology”.

Cross-border science collaboration

Xi’s highly formal Hong Kong visit was accompanied by a flurry of announcements on cross-border collaboration in science and innovation, including the official announcement the same day of HKUST’s new mainland campus in Guangzhou which recently gained approval from the regional education authority to start classes in September.

These will include undergraduate programmes in artificial intelligence, big data technology and intelligent manufacturing, engineering and another 15 master and doctoral programmes, including advanced materials, intelligent transportation and microelectronics.

The new campus, about 30 minutes by high-speed train link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, is “expected to better integrate quality educational resources” of Hong Kong with the mainland, the official Global Times newspaper said.

According to the paper, “the synergy in education [between Hong Kong and the mainland] will not only cultivate more high-end talent for the mainland but will also help Hong Kong transform and apply its advanced research capacity across more industries,” noting that Hong Kong currently has six universities ranked in the top 500 in the world, four of them within the top 100.

“The university [HKUST] integrates high-quality educational resources from both Hong Kong and the mainland and will aim at cultivating innovative talents with a global vision. It will promote the reform of higher education in China, facilitate the integrated development of education between Hong Kong and the mainland, and serve the construction of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area,” it said.

The Greater Bay Area in Southern China’s Guangdong province seeks to integrate Hong Kong and the former Portuguese enclave of Macau with nine cities in the province to boost innovation and high-end manufacturing.

“Hong Kong has access to other globally advanced institutions in carrying out scientific research, be it technology exchanges or intellectual property rights exchanges. The mainland, however, cannot always gain such access easily as it faces a complex environment; for example, some countries would enforce [a] technological blockade on the Chinese mainland, especially in high-tech fields,” the paper noted, referring to US export controls and sanctions.

The mainland, in return, can help Hong Kong institutions to apply the advanced research results to industries and businesses as Guangdong has a well-developed manufacturing industry, “providing the soil for the transformation of scientific research results,” the paper said.

Others have noted that Hong Kong’s branch campuses would extend quality higher education to more mainland students, as universities in Hong Kong have a cap on the number of mainlanders allowed to enrol: 15% of the student body at undergraduate level.

Shanghai Centre

But Hong Kong institutions are not only concentrating on neighbouring Guangdong province. Some are expanding their mainland presence, often with the help of Chinese government and local government funding, and funding from mainland research agencies and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Announced just after Xi’s departure from Hong Kong was the signing of an agreement with the Shanghai local government for a new Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) centre in Shanghai, billed as part of the highly ranked Hong Kong university’s development plan on the mainland.

Located in a university hub in Shanghai’s Yangpu district, the new CUHK centre is expected to serve as “an important bridge” promoting the integration and development of Shanghai and Hong Kong, the university said.

Rocky Tuan, vice-chancellor of CUHK, said it would build a platform for exchanges between entrepreneurs, scholars and students from Shanghai and Hong Kong.

“It is a new initiative. We have been pursuing opportunities in the Yangtze River Delta (region around Shanghai), for the last 18-24 months,” said Laurie Pearcey, CUHK vice-president for external engagement and outreach, adding it would be in place by the end of the year or early 2023.

“It is just the first step and what we hope will be something that, over time, becomes larger and more exciting on innovation and entrepreneurship, providing space for start-ups that are affiliated with the university and our large alumni [presence in Shanghai], supporting them as they go through that journey,” Pearcey told University World News.

CUHK already has a branch campus in Shenzhen, a joint venture with Shenzhen University and partnerships with Shanghai’s Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, while the CUHK business school is setting up joint degree postgraduate programmes at Fudan.

Last year, CUHK also established an interdisciplinary research institute with the Shanghai Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, a national-level research institute and an AI collaboration with SenseTime, an AI platform founded by a group of CUHK professors in 2014 and known globally for facial recognition software.

“This [centre] will give us a physical presence and an opportunity to really consolidate those partnerships. It gives us another vehicle to do collaborations with industry in the Yangtze River Delta,” said Peacey.

Maintaining international research links

China is keen to show it is carrying out research to world-class standards and sees universities in Hong Kong as a way of continuing international collaboration in research at a time when universities in Australia, the United States, Europe and Japan are increasing scrutiny as part of their push to improve research security.

The CUHK’s Shenzhen campus focuses on similar core areas of research as the main CUHK campus in Hong Kong, including medical research, biotechnology, computer science, robotics and artificial intelligence, Pearcey said, adding “at the same time, these are also priority areas for industries in the mainland and the government in the mainland”.

Strict data rules in China that do not allow data to be taken out of the country mean that it is easier to do certain biomedical research on the mainland itself, he noted.

But, he emphasised: “Any research that gets done at the CUHK campus in Shenzhen is according to CUHK standard policies and procedures – the same rigour that you would expect from our Hong Kong campus applies there. It also assists with the broader internationalisation endeavour under way in many mainland universities and research institutes; they are hugely interested in our [research] standards.”

He said another element making mainland collaboration with the Hong Kong institutions attractive is that 90% or more of CUHK’s professors have international qualifications.