The way ahead for Hong Kong, CityU: a personal reflection

Peter Ho


Last month in this space, the President talked about what he perceived as the four challenges at the start of the new semester (Linkage No. 214), one of which involves the new strategic plan. This month, he makes use of his regular meeting with Linkage to put forward his personal views on where City University should be heading in the greater context of Hong Kong’s future role vis-?-vis China’s rapid development. Professor H K Chang hopes that this will cause greater interest in, and further discussion on, the consultation draft now unveiled on the Intranet.


“The whole issue,” said Professor Chang, “can be mapped out in three steps.” First, we have to define Hong Kong’s new position in the overall context of China’s rapid emergence as a global economic powerhouse, and from there, find out how best CityU can contribute towards Hong Kong’s new role. Finally, it is about how our new strategic plan can help the University achieve its vision and mission.


Of late, a cacophony of voices has been heard on the first question from the government, the media and the public. “How can Hong Kong compete?”, “Where should Hong Kong be heading?” and “Is there a future for Hong Kong?” are some recurrent themes in the waves of scepticism that are washing over Hong Kong . The urgency of these questions has been exacerbated by Hong Kong’s dwindling economic fortune since 1997 and the rise of a booming economy to our north. The result: the mood of Hong Kong people has by and large slid from over-confidence (some would say bordering on arrogance) before the Asian financial crisis to today’s pessimism.


“We (the people of Hong Kong) have failed to see our own worth and have forgotten our inherent niche in today’s tough times,” said Professor Chang. That Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China is not a product of mere coincidence; there are strong and obvious geographical and historical reasons. In the past, starting from its early days as a British colony and right through the Korean War and Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, Hong Kong was the channel through which China traded and interacted with the West. First there were exports of silk, porcelain and tea. Then there were imports of Western goods and ideas. “Hong Kong has always served as a bridge between China and the outside world in every sense of the word,” said Professor Chang.


The bridge, metaphorically speaking, became wider and more complex when China decided to modernize its economy and open up to the world in the late 1970s. What started as a trickle of northward-bound capital, advanced management ideas and technologies from Hong Kong, and from other places through Hong Kong, is now an unstoppable deluge that has catapulted China to its current position as the world’s top beneficiary of foreign investments and, gradually, largest manufacturing base.


Hong Kong has had a major hand to play in these sweeping changes, said Professor Chang, and more: “We also have exported a lot of our homegrown, popular culture--our unique culinary styles and habits, our Cantopop songs, our vernacular phrases and expressions, for example--to China’s mainland,” he explained. “Everywhere you go in the country today it is not difficult to find signs of Hong Kong’s cultural influence.” In many ways, China’s recent repid progress in the urban areas owes much to the Hong Kong role model and we remain by far the country’s most sophisticated city.


Since 1997, as China’s economic prowess increases by leaps and bounds, interactions between Hong Kong and the mainland have become more regular and have intensified. Exchanges have become bi-directional and multi-layered, a long way from the largely one-way street of the previous 20 to 40 years. “The bridge, so to speak, has three decks,” Professor Chang said.


The lower deck is all about local traffic in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region. In the past two decades, our manufacturing industries have been “hollowed out” and relocated to Dongguan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai and Shenzhen. Yet with its excellent infrastructure in transportation and telecommunications, well-established practices in accountancy, law, insurance and the like, Hong Kong is likely to retain a leading position in the PRD region, even though some developments there have started to chisel away at our competitiveness (the cheap and abundant supply of labour and land, for example). Professor Chang believes that Hong Kong operates, and will continue to operate, as a servicing hub, a design and R&D centre, and a headquarters town for an expansive belt of manufacturing industries in the PRD region and neighbouring areas. “Hong Kong’s economic future, in the setting of the Pearl River Delta area, lies in its high value servicing industries,” he said. “Our economy is not going to be simply manufacturing-based.”


The bridge’s upper decks, on the other hand, offer a nationwide and global perspective, beyond our immediate hinterland, with greater hopes of a truly two-way traffic of bigger volume. This is where Hong Kong’s service industries and trained personnel--accountants, insurers, lawyers, engineering designers, R&D professionals--will make a greater impact for a long time to come. “ Hong Kong is still a strong bridge for China , through which it can reach out to the world,” said Professor Chang. It is short-sighted and even dangerous, in his view, if we keep forgetting our bridging role and think of ourselves as being merely “an expensive city located just next to Shenzhen.” “Our vision should be not locked into competing with, and surpassing, Shenzhen alone. Why should we, say, rush to build a microelectronic production centre if Shenzhen decides to build one?”


In the same vein, CityU will have to find its place in the context of the bridge scenario. It is, Professor Chang said, meaningless if we try to define ourselves by what other local institutions are not. What he means is we shouldn’t, for example, contemplate “new” programmes that are not or will not be offered in other local UGC-funded institutions. “Is there any real worth in merely comparing ourselves to the others in Hong Kong?” he asked. “I believe our real contribution lies in how we can produce better graduates to help Hong Kong fulfill its destined role as a bridge between China and the rest of the world. This is best summed up in our slogan: in the city, for the city and by the city.”


If Hong Kong and CityU are destined to serve as bridges, Professor Chang continued, then our future graduates will be equipped to compete not only on the level of technical expertise but also with a broader vision to recongnize the function and prospects of the Hong Kong bridging role. Thus they will need good language skills (Chinese and English) and cross-cultural understanding (based on a considerable knowledge of Chinese culture and a familiarity with other cultures). “I can’t imagine our students’ technical expertise would be three times better than their counterparts in the Pearl River Delta region to merit a 300% difference in salary when they graduate,” he said. Seen from this angle, CityU’s early forays into English language and Chinese civilization courses are important steps in the right direction. “We’ll introduce further reforms in our curriculum and offer more meaningful and substantial out-of-discipline courses to help broaden our students’ learning experience,” Professor Chang concluded. He believes that the new strategic plan will be another milestone in this direction.


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