Don’t Tamper With the Special Sauce! My Thoughts on Hong Kong’s Future
How does academic freedom in Hong Kong reflect on its future? I’m part of a ChinaFile conversation. The whole debate is here. My contribution is:
What is it that makes a place work? What is it that separates a world city from a second- or third-tier city?
More specifically, what is it that has made Hong Kong (a major port city on China’s coast with a population of just over seven million) different from Dalian (a major port city on China’s coast with a population of just under seven million)? And what can continue to make it different and relevant and international? My belief is the answer isn’t a simple checklist, where having six or seven out of 10 items is a passing grade and good enough.
Fundamental to a city being a world-class city is its belief in its own uniqueness and its pride in its institutions. The case of the University of Hong Kong and its council’s tortured, months-long consideration and ultimate rejection of distinguished legal scholar Johannes Chan as a university pro-vice-chancellor undermines that belief at its core and threatens what had been Hong Kong’s strength and uniqueness. It makes Hong Kong much more like Dalian than it was.
Hong Kong’s uniqueness was encapsulated in the phrase “One country, two systems” that was supposed to define its post-colonial existence as a Special Administrative Region of China. The phrase represented the strong sense of independence in which Hong Kong’s institutions prided themselves, even though, to be fair, it was an ideal they weren’t always able to live up to fully in practice.
An independent judiciary. An impartial civil service. A free press. An uncowed university system. A public atmosphere of free debate. As ideals these were all things that contributed to the atmosphere that made Hong Kong an international center, an incubator of talent, a locus of business and commerce. The strong smell of politics surrounding the Chan case was so overt and the circumstances—from email hacking to character assassination—have been so ham-fisted that it has eroded that very crucial aura of uniqueness.
The question now is simply: is the experiment of a special, world-class Hong Kong over?
If those behind the ultimately successful attacks on Chan are today simply reveling in their victory, they are making a mistake. For by winning this battle, they’ve made a huge step towards losing the war to keep Hong Kong prosperous and relevant. For if the universities are so subject to politics, how long before the courts are undermined? And if that happens, there is no reason to locate oneself or one’s business in Hong Kong as opposed to Shanghai, Chongqing, or, even, Dalian.
If those people, however, come to realize the danger and now work very urgently and diligently to shore up the beleaguered institutions, from the press to the courts to the universities, then Hong Kong has continued hope. If Hong Kong’s sinking into the sleepy irrelevance of a second-tier city is actually what they want, then this was a great step forward on that sad journey.