21 October 2016
HKU vice president and pro vice chancellor Professor Ian Holliday (inset) revealed plans to introduce the "mainland experience" policy during a recent meeting with student leaders. Photos: HKEJ, HKU
HKU vice president and pro vice chancellor Professor Ian Holliday (inset) revealed plans to introduce the "mainland experience" policy during a recent meeting with student leaders. Photos: HKEJ, HKU

Is HKU being turned into a pro-Beijing university?

Is the University of Hong Kong, one of the world’s top institutions of higher learning, being turned into a pro-Beijing school?

Not a few eyebrows were raised when it was revealed that the University of Hong Kong plans to roll out a policy that will require undergraduate students to spend time on the mainland as part of their degree.

The policy, which will be introduced gradually and fully implemented by 2022, was revealed by Professor Ian Holliday, the university’s vice president and pro vice chancellor, during a recent meeting with student leaders.

When the students raised a howl because they were not consulted about it at all, Holliday reportedly told them: “If you don’t want to go to the mainland, don’t come to HKU.”

The rationale behind the plan is to allow the students to have the “mainland experience”, according to the HKU administration. But what would that experience actually be? 

HKU students are not exactly strangers to life across the border. Most of them have been to the mainland to visit relatives and friends, experience its life and culture, and study its history and current affairs.

So why the need to go there as a course requirement?

In the first place, the students are interested in attaining the professional knowledge and undergoing the training needed for them to be able to pursue their chosen careers. If they wanted to gain a deeper understanding of China, they would have enrolled in a history or political science course — or bought a book about the nation like China for Dummies.

Besides, why limit a student’s exposure to China alone? The world is so big with nearly 200 other nations of about six billion people.

The HKU’s corporate communications department sought to allay fears about some hidden agenda behind the policy, saying the university simply wants to help students gain a global, including a China, perspective. Visiting the mainland or a foreign country of their choice will enable students to widen their horizon.

But still the school does not give the reason why HKU students must understand what China is doing in order to attain a professional degree. This only goes to show that the school policy is being made for reasons other than academic.

Universities have provided a rich and varied talent pool for the city’s wide range of industries. They have also served as bastions of enlightened views on social, economic and political issues confronting Hong Kong, and of opposition to unjust and undemocratic impositions from the government and Beijing.

After all, universities, particularly their students and professors, are deeply aware of what’s going on around them, and they don’t need to visit the mainland to increase their awareness and understanding of issues in the city or in mainland China.

Just to give two examples, they rallied in support of the Tiananmen Square student movement in 1989 and led last year’s Occupy campaign for genuine universal suffrage in the 2017 chief executive election.

And there was no mandatory “China experience” requirement at HKU or any other university at the time.

Apparently, what Beijing and Hong Kong officials want is a “China experience” that will highlight what is good about the Communist Party, one that will build the students’ sense of “patriotism”, which is loyalty and obedience to the Party.

We wonder: Is the HKU administration now being pressured to adopt measures toward this end?

Beijing and the officials it appointed to rule over Hong Kong believe that local students were raised with a wrong sense of Chinese history, and they blame the local education system for its failure to provide the proper moulding of the youth.

They see the need for re-education to raise a new generation of young people who will recognize the primacy of the Communist Party and Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.

In particular, they see HKU as the embodiment of this anomaly that must be corrected. Wasn’t it HKU that produced many of the student leaders that waged the Occupy campaign last year? Wasn’t it in HKU where law professor Benny Tai initiated the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement that eventually led to the city’s biggest civil disobedience campaign?

That is why when they fired their broadsides against the democracy campaigners, the pro-Beijing camp always aimed at the university. That is why the pro-Beijing camp launched the public condemnation of Tai and former law faculty head Johannes Chan for their proactive participation in pro-democracy campaigns. That is why the university council was forced to launch an investigation into Tai for his handling of certain donations, which also affected the proposed nomination of Chan as pro vice chancellor. That is why Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, in his recent policy address, assailed the HKU Student Union’s publication the Undergrad for allegedly supporting the call for Hong Kong independence.

It’s quite clear that Beijing thinks HKU is enjoying too much academic freedom. And one way of transforming the university from a hotbed of opposition to a model community of learners supportive of the central leadership is to introduce measures that will emphasize what is positive about China.

Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong about students gaining more knowledge about China, both its positive and not so positive aspects. And HKU’s policy of introducing the “China experience” policy can help in widening the students’ understanding of the mainland.

But the public must closely monitor how the university administration will implement such a program to avoid its use as a tool to promote acquiescence and quell dissent.

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EJ Insight writer

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