Higher Education in Hong Kong under "One Country, Two Systems"
Poon Chung-kwong, President of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, on his institution's growing ties with the mainland.
Published: Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Poon Chung-kwong has many distinctions. Trained as a chemist, he holds doctorates of science and of philosophy from the University of London. He has been a visiting scholar at USC and at Cal Tech. In addition to being the chief administrator of Hong Kong's largest scientific/technical university he is a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, making him an important figure in the mainland Chinese government. Visiting UCLA February 11 as a guest of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, the International Institute, the Fulbright program, and the Center for International and Development Education, he shared his ideas on the current and future prospects of higher education in Hong Kong.
Poon was generally optimistic. Hong Kong Polytechnic University has been particularly entrepreneurial in forging curricular and economic ties with numerous universities and businesses in China as far away as Xi'an since the transition from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
"We are actiing as consultants on the government's current policy of developing western China," he told a lunch meeting with faculty. His campus has many marketable areas of expertise, with leading departments in surveying, engineering, optometry, physical therapy, clothing design, business administration, and space sciences. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University currently has contracts with entities in 18 countries. For example, Hong Kong Polytechnic operates a joint International Business Center at Xi'an Jiaotong University in Shaanxi province. Their search for collaborative projects, Dr. Poon said, has been along discipline lines rather than purely institution to institution. They have joint centers with several Chinese universities to teach special programs such as hotel management, or general financial management.
How Real Is "One Country, Two Systems"?
Hong Kong, Poon Chung-kwong pointed out in a talk in the Graduate School of Education, has its own legal system inherited from the 150 years of British rule. "It is different from Chinese law. Hong Kong has an independent judicial power. Chinese is the official language but, unlike mainland China, English may also be used as an official language. Many judicial hearings are conducted in English. My university uses English as a medium of instruction. It is now five and a half years since the reversion, and Hong Kong has been able to preserve its way of life and its financial system. It has its own fully fledged legal system. The city remains a financial, economic, and artistic center."
Dr. Poon said that many academics, who had been publicly critical of the British government prior to 1997, "have continued this role by criticizing the mainland China government in the period after 1997. During my past 12 years as president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University I have seen the preservation of the same kind of academic freedom we had before the changeover. There has been no change, freedom of speech remains our right after the transition."
Chinese Government Cautious in Criticizing Hong Kong
Poon Chung-kwong said that the mainland Chinese government had been more critical in public of the Hong Kong goverment and press before the reversion than after. "They try not to say anything, since whatever they say can be interpreted as trying to pressure the Hong Kong government and society, so they try to stay silent." The Chinese government has been quite restrictive in permitting its academics to visit Hong Kong, although they are nominally part of the same country. Poon Chung-kwong insisted that this was to protect Hong Kong rather than to halt academic exchanges. "It is more difficult for a mainland academic to visit Hong Kong than to visit the United States. This is part of the government policy to promote nonintervention."
Financing Education in Hong Kong
In the current world climate of tight money the Hong Kong government, like governments elsewhere, has been looking to cut university budgets. One proposal has been to merge several universities to save administrative overhead. "The government," Poon said, "tends to look at education as a budget item, and wants to reduce costs. For those of us in education we see it differently, as the basis of Hong Kong's future success. Education to me is a long term investment. The only essence we have in Hong Kong is human resources, we have no other." One measure of continued academic freedom in the former territory is the ability of the universities to resist the proposed mergers. "For example the government proposed that the Chinese University of Hong Kong merge with another university. It has so far declined to do so."
While cutbacks loom for the universities, the government has ambitious plans to expand secondary eduction. At this time just under 40% of 17-20 year olds are enrolled in secondary education. "The government has decided to increase this to 60% by 2011. This is a big change."
Programs of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University
The Polytechnic University's programs, Dr. Poon said, "are aimed at meeting the manpower needs of Hong Kong. We are in the best position to form partnerships with local businesses, to design programs to serve their development needs.
"Clothing is a major export from Hong Kong. We have an institute to research textiles, fashion design, and the only school of design in Hong Kong. We work with many famous designers, not only in Hong Kong but in New York and elsewhere."
Hong Kong Polytechnic has 11,000 daytime students and another 10,000 in night classes, which makes it the largest enrollment of a university in Hong Kong.
"In the wake of unification we have taken a number of measures to serve as a bridge between East and West. We have concluded that English should be the medium of instruction to help maintain the competitiveness of Hong Kong business. We have English and Chinese as compulsory subjects. We recruit top academics from the mainland, Taiwan, Australia, and elsewhere as well as Hong Kong."
Polytechnic University is striving to become a leading technology center for the region. "We also aim to contribute to developing the local business and industrial sector. We have arranged for more and more students to be attached to business and industry for on-the-job training, particularly in our summer placement program, which extends to 18 different countries including the U.S. and Australia. Many of our students get summer jobs outside of Hong Kong, for 5 or 6 weeks. This helps them to improve their English. Over 3000 students have benefited from this program in he last 3-4 years. Many of our students take up employment in the mainland after graduation."
Hong Kong Polytechnic runs management training centers in a number of Chinese cities. They do technical consultative work in Europe as well. "We have a project with the Russians to provide technical support to their space program. Our university has been invited by the European Space Agency to collaborate with them. On December26 of this year the European Space Agency is to send an unmanned space vehicle to Mars. We have been invited to develop a program for this mission. The mission is designed to try to discover if life exists on Mars.
Looking to the future Dr. poon concluded, "We should seek rapid integration with the mainland and try our best to support the advance of the country's hopes, not just continue to look at ourselves as an isolated territory. We should set up partnerships with other cities in China. We should, however, build on the foundation of Hong Kong as an international city."