Some sort of surreptitious purge seems to be going on in Hong Kong universities. People are mysteriously resigning, for “personal reasons” which seem just as spurious as the “business reasons” which are usually adduced to explain corporate departures.

WVice-chancellor of HKUST Shyy Wei announced his resignation on November 9, 2021. Photo: HKUST.

Large numbers of people whose political loyalties did not fit the new regime have been fired, sometimes for rather unconvincing reasons, sometimes for no stated reason, and sometimes for explicitly political offences.

The pro-government press is still baying for more blood, naming individuals suitable for culling with a cheerful disregard for the inhibitions imposed on the less favoured media by the laws of libel.

The justification for all this is the fear that local students have been or may be “radicalised” by the university experience. They arrive, fresh-faced simpletons, in local lecture theatres, only to be corrupted and led astray by secretly subversive professors. Or that’s the story.

This is actually a most unjustified fear. Many years ago the then-Vice Chancellor of the University of Lancaster was provoked by repeated complaints about the effect of university life on the morals and politics of students into writing a spirited defence.

Thousands of people attend a class boycott activity at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Kong on September 2, 2019. Photo: GovHK.

Charles Carter, the VC concerned, was an interesting character. He was a devout Quaker who had been jailed during World War Two for refusing to participate. He was entitled to both Prof and Dr but refused to use either. He firmly vetoed the suggestion that the university’s new campus should include a presidential palace and lived in a rented house in the town nearby.

Charles and I became, rather inconveniently, friends. Student leaders in those days were expected to be at loggerheads with the university administration but we managed occasionally to disappoint both our sets of supporters by failing to disagree.

Charles’s response to the complainers was supposed to be delivered to a dinner for local worthies and supporters… and the press, who of course seized on the most controversial bit. This was where he said that students spent 18 formative years living with their parents and at least 12 in the school system before they arrived at a university. So it was most unlikely that the three years at tertiary level were responsible for any personal or political deficiencies with which they emerged.

Hong Kong students stage a human chain protest on September 26, 2019. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

The press had, as a matter of course, been supplied with an advance copy of the speech. To the horror of the Lancashire Evening Post, who had already filed his story, when Charles came to the fighting talk his distaste for warfare woke up and he missed it out.

This led to a lengthy discussion of journalistic ethics. Was the LEP reporter obliged to call his office and cancel the story or could we charitably suppose that the omission of the best news material was an accident, and its inclusion in the press would still be welcome?

Well, it’s not really relevant here but having got this far I can’t stop without telling you what happened: in the end the story was left as it was. The VC did not complain.

However, the important point for our purposes is that critics of student behaviour often grossly overrate the influence in any direction of university education. This delusion has sometimes afflicted university administrators as well.

Some years before my retirement there was a campaign to persuade us all that every lesson should have “intended outcomes.” These in turn would slot into “intended outcomes” of the course, and those in turn would relate to the “intended outcomes” of the whole university.

Protesters take cover during clashes with police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), in Hong Kong on November 12, 2019. File Photo: HKU Campus TV.

This was never a success. The people actually concerned with delivering classes never believed in it. This disbelief was reinforced by the rule that all “outcomes” had to be measurable. As a result, such important but unstatistical matters as wisdom and judgement were ruled out altogether.

Actually, opportunities for radicalisation rarely come up. Attempts to provide “breadth” in education commonly involve taking a wider range of subjects, but these are still taught by people whose qualification is extremely specialised. In the vast majority of classes the merits of petrol bombs and tear gas simply do not come up.

Indeed, many of my colleagues were reluctant to engage in any interaction with students outside the subjects they were teaching, on the grounds that they had no qualification relevant to personal problems and did not wish to risk possible legal repercussions if they erred. The contrary view was that, after a conscientious plug for the professionals in the counselling service and the eager amateurs in the chaplaincy, we should accept that students had a right to the sympathetic ear of their choice and if you were so honoured it was up to you to do your best.

Nobody was looking for a chance to explain the merits of dialectical materialism, or indeed of Jacksonian democracy.

Baptist University. File photo: inmediahk.com by CC 2.0.

So I felt a certain lack of enthusiasm for the news that students at my old stamping ground are now subjected to a compulsory two-hour lecture from some government stooge on the merits of the national security law. This featured no less than 200 Powerpoint slides, according to reports, which I would respectfully suggest is too many. There is also a multiple choice exam – the easiest kind to run, because it can be graded by a computer.

The idea that this is going to make any difference seems rather far-fetched, in the light of the failure of much more serious efforts to change student views.

I remember a brief row in student circles over a mainlander who ran for a student office at City U. This was in the days when student unions were still allowed. It then emerged that he had been a member of the Young Communists. The other members of his “team” dropped out, complaining that this should not have been concealed from the voters.

Some of my students turned up the next day in red scarves. They explained that they were protesting at this discrimination, not because they were communists but because membership of the Young Communists was effectively compulsory if you were selected. They had all been in it. It should not be regarded as evidence of any political view.

September 22, 2014 – Thousands of students gather at Chinese University as student strikes begin. File Photo: Todd R. Darling.

In the 1940s the British government, concerned at the decline in religion, decreed that every school day should start with a “non-denominational act of worship.” This provision was faithfully observed at every school I attended. The decline in religion continued unabated.

Changing people’s minds is harder than it looks. It is quite easy, on the other hand, to produce an appearance of agreement by suppressing the expression of views you don’t agree with. This is, though, hardly compatible with the life of a university, which is based on the principle first enunciated by Pierre Bayle, that “everyone has the right to be mistaken and to hold ill-founded views.”

The characteristic of a university, if I may borrow a concept from Pirsig’s fascinating book on motorcycle maintenance, is that its purpose is the pursuit of truth and its method is the use of reason.

If the first of these is abandoned and the second disdained, then what you have left is a nice building and a lot of nice people. But, though it may look like a university, and talk like a university, it is no longer a university. And that is the destination towards which some people are urging us.


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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.