Battle for Hong Kong reverberates in universities worldwide

University World News:
Going back to university is usually an exciting time for students and educators. Yet those returning to Hong Kong’s universities this autumn do so with weariness rather than anticipation. The annual rituals, of students enrolling in classes and professors polishing their syllabi, feel out of place and almost inappropriate on campuses that have been transformed over the summer into living museums of protests, democracy walls and backlash.

The politics, well-publicised in the world’s media, on the streets, in train stations and at the airport here in Hong Kong, cannot be evaded on campus in favour of abstract intellectual pursuits. For the international politics of Hong Kong reverberate in the internationalisation efforts of its universities.

The University of Hong Kong holds the title of the most international university in the world from Times Higher Education due to its diverse student make-up and emphasis on student exchange. Yet the resource scarcity of the city’s university system, as a part of the scarcity challenge the region faces as a whole, is now impossible to ignore.

Locally-based students find it increasingly difficult to secure university spots in Hong Kong’s highly competitive academic system. International, local and mainland Chinese students arrive for classes on the first day already alienated from each other due to housing, social exclusion and other issues, despite hopes for students to collaborate in a cosmopolitan learning environment.

Security issues

Other forms of university internalisation are also challenged today. For the first time, international scholars are declining invitations to speak on Hong Kong campuses, given the vivid images of violence and urban disruption this summer. An international conference I was planning for October, for about 100 international civil society and development leaders, has been cancelled and relocated this week, to a safer-looking place.

Hong Kong finally has the world’s attention. Yet residents of ‘Asia’s World City’ feel more isolated than ever.

It is also clear now how the seeds of Hong Kong’s protests have drifted around the world. In university campuses in the United Kingdom, Australia and North America, nationalistic Chinese students and their Hong Kong counterparts have begun to clash.

In Western societies, admissions officials took for granted in the past the many students from Hong Kong and mainland China who desired an international study experience. Now professors and student mentors in Western universities must come to terms with Hong Kong’s political situation to understand what their students are clashing over and how they can constructively intervene.

Unhelpful reporting

As partisans on the various sides have aimed to use the media to attract attention to their perspective and their cause, few in Hong Kong feel well recognised or represented in news coverage. During Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, we chuckled on campus over Western-based journalists bungling the phrase ‘one country, two systems’ – famous here for signifying Hong Kong’s partial autonomy within the Chinese nation-state – and confusing it for ‘two countries, one system’.

Today it is becoming hard not to be cynical about most Western-based coverage, which often lacks the historical and political context necessary to make sense of what is happening, instead offering dramatic, unhelpful and sensational depictions of worst-case scenarios.

In this context, people inside and outside Hong Kong may find themselves with little common understanding to begin productive conversations about the issues at the heart of Hong Kong’s political challenge.

Understanding the issues

Universities today must start to rebuild common ground among students where it has been eroded and cultivate the seeds for international dialogue on campus on the tracts of barren ground recently discovered.

As Hong Kong people know, international dialogue cannot always be fun and pleasant. Yet it is a task that cannot be taken for granted and should not be neglected when there are high stakes. Such dialogue requires recognising that people are as likely to misunderstand each other as they are to understand each other, given polarising discussions in the media.

The global experience of Hong Kong can also inspire scholars around the world to recognise that politics and cultural identities outside their own context take different shapes and forms.

It is easy and natural for a person to take something foreign to them and try to make sense of it through likening it to that which is more familiar. However, only a highly biased picture comes out of this process. In such a process, one can overlook the fact that Chinese nationality is not monolithic, while postcolonial identities and experiences are not the same around the world.

In this case, the instinct to assimilate and map Hong Kong issues onto those more familiar should be held up to scrutiny. Assumptions about being able to easily understand events in the international arena based on short video clips must be assessed by those aiming to understand Hong Kong’s in the world today.

Higher education around the world has always benefited from internationalisation. Events in Hong Kong clarify the preciousness of international dialogue, as well as its precariousness.

Internationalism is becoming threatened around the world today. Partisan politics, neoliberal globalism, and new media pose challenges to people interested in understanding that which is distant or different.

To meet these challenges universities should develop greater openness to new forms of academic exploration, evolving out of traditional disciplinary orientations of capitalist economics, liberal political philosophy and media studies. This openness should be based on identifying what is unknown in international politics, and what one needs to know.

The battle for Hong Kong will not cease when we all go back to school and the news media moves on to new items. It will continue to reverberate in the halls of universities around the world, demanding deep listening.

Liz Jackson is an associate professor of philosophy of education at the University of Hong Kong. She is president of the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia and director of the Comparative Education Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong. She is author of the books Muslims and Islam in US Education: Reconsidering multiculturalism (Routledge, 2014) and Questioning Allegiance: Resituating civic education (Routledge, 2019). Her next authored text will be published with Cambridge University Press and is entitled Against Virtue: The politics of educating emotions.