Two universities in Hong Kong are planning to restructure or downgrade their politics departments as demand for places falls in the wake of the national security law.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) intends to “restructure” its department of Government and Public Administration (GPA), citing the decline in applicants and long-time financial challenges. 

Photo: CityU, CUHK

The 51-year-old department, which has cultivated prominent politicians and pro-democracy activists, will be downgraded to a programme. It will be incorporated into a yet-to-be-named new school with two other smaller and more recent programmes, Global Studies and Data Science and Policy Studies.

The reorganisation will start next year, at the earliest.

The City University of Hong Kong (CityU) also confirmed structural changes to its department of Public Policy, citing interdisciplinary development and the strengthening of academic competitiveness. Its department of Public Policy and the department of Asian and International Studies will be merged into the department of Public and International Affairs.

“External parties should not interfere with or disrupt the academic governance of a university. Academic freedom and campus autonomy stand among CityU’s core values and must be respected,” CityU told HKFP in an email.

In an online consultation conducted by CUHK, some GPA alumni expressed concern about the planned restructuring, asking if the university would reduce politically sensitive courses for fear of crossing the national security “red lines.” One alumnus, who wished to remain anonymous, told HKFP he thought the university was trying to “depoliticise” the department.

The wall of democracy in the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Photo: CUHK

Clement So, chair of the CUHK task force in charge of the restructuring, told HKFP that no course would be scrapped in the short term. In response to speculation about possible political motives, he said the proposal only aimed to facilitate interdisciplinary studies.

“It’s just a coincidence [that two universities plan to reorganise their political schools at the same time], but people won’t believe us… If we’d said we’re going to ‘kill the department,’ imagine the chaos. That’s why it’s impossible,” said So.

Applicants drop

The CUHK GPA department is one of the most prestigious and historic political schools in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy figures, many of whom have now been charged with national security offences or barred from serving as district councillors – including Lester Shum, Au Nok-hin and Lam Cheuk-ting, who are awaiting trial as part of the 47 democrats national security case – are among its graduates. Pro-establishment politicians, including Legislative Council members Priscilla Leung, Gary Chan and Tang Fei, are also alumni.

However, the political departments at CUHK and CityU both saw drastic drops in the number of applicants in 2021, the first university admission year after the Beijing-imposed national security law came into force. 

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

Hong Kong’s university admissions system JUPAS. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP

The number of local applicants to CityU’s Public Policy programme decreased by almost 45 per cent in 2021 compared to the previous year, and applicants for CUHK’s GPA programme fell almost 29 per cent, according to the university admissions system JUPAS. The number of first-year politics-major students at CUHK fell from 40 to around 20 this academic year.

No financial bailout

The head of CUHK’s GPA department Carlos Lo told students in the online consultation that in light of the decrease in student numbers, the department might not be able to afford to keep its current teaching staff without a reorganisation. 

Lo also told students and alumni that he did not believe the university or the faculty would “rescue” the GPA department financially.

So told HKFP the actual changes would be minimal: the three programmes would remain as separate academic programmes in the admissions system, and the budgeting of each would remain independent of the others in the short term. But the programmes would be restructured under a bigger “umbrella” – the brand-new school – that would aim to facilitate cooperation between three programmes.

So admitted that the three departments could be further incorporated, “but at least not in the short term.”

The head of CUHK’s GPA department Carlos Lo (left) and chair of the task force Clement So (right). Photo: CUHK

However, another social science professor from CUHK, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told HKFP that the move would be a “downgrade” for most teaching staff and students, and that the task force had failed to consider a number of potential problems. The professor doubted whether the restructuring was an effective solution to the challenges faced by the department. “I simply cannot imagine how this would end up,” they said.

‘Weird’ new names

According to an internal report from So’s task force, there were five possible names for the school that will incorporate the Government and Public Administration, Global Studies, and Data Science and Policy Studies programmes. 

Among the proposed names, “political insights,” “governance” and “interdisciplinary social science” have been used instead of the word “politics” or “government,” which were in the original Chinese and English name of the department.

Most alumni opposed the possible names in the online consultation, describing them as “weird” choices. 

In Full: Five proposed names for the new school – click to view.

School of Interdisciplinary Social Science

School of Global, Political and Policy Insight

School of Global Governance and Policy Insight

School of Global Governance and Data Science

School of Governance and Policy Innovation

A CUHK GPA graduate, who wished to remain anonymous, told HKFP it was not appropriate for the 51-year-old GPA department to undergo such a sudden revamp. He said such names were rarely seen in other internationally-renowned political schools.

The alumni added that university authorities had made no firm guarantee to maintain the department’s autonomy in the future.

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Lea Mok

Lea Mok is a multimedia reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously contributed to The Initium, StandNews, MingPao and others. She holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.