Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Retired at 60: why some of Hong Kong’s most renowned scholars find they are no longer wanted at university

NewsHong KongSociety
2018-09-27
City aims to be regional education hub but is losing academic talent to countries such as Australia and the US which have no compulsory retirement age

Professor Jim Chi-yung, former chair professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), counts himself among the lucky ones in academia because he was allowed to continue working after turning 60.

The prominent urban ecology and tree management expert set a record two years ago for having the biggest class at HKU when 1,018 students signed up for his Nature Conservation for Sustainable Societies course.

Jim, nicknamed “Tree Daddy”, bade a reluctant farewell to HKU in June this year, after turning 65 and spending 37 years there. He had hoped to carry on for another three years, but his application was rejected.

HKU is among four publicly funded universities that have retained 60 as the retirement age. The others are Polytechnic University, Baptist University and Education University, and all have the discretion to extend an academic’s service depending on merit and staffing needs.

Their policy runs counter to the government’s decision in 2015 to raise the retirement age for civil servants to 65 and has been slammed for hurting efforts to recruit and retain talent at a time when Hong Kong is aiming to be a regional education hub.

The 107-year-old HKU has come under greatest attack after losing a number of renowned scholars in recent years. Critics say Hong Kong’s most prestigious university ought to lead the way with an enlightened retirement policy with people living longer and capable of working longer too.

Jim, now research chair professor of geography and environmental science at Education University, told the Post he was grateful HKU treated him well throughout his career, but said academics were unhappy with the inconsistency in the way extensions past 60 were granted.

“Some academics with outstanding performance are renewed for only one year, while others who are less impressive are granted an extra two years or three,” he said. “That could be fairly arbitrary.”

Critics say Hong Kong is losing academic talent to countries such as Australia and the United States which have no compulsory retirement age, and the trend in other ageing societies is also towards allowing people to work longer.

The retirement age at the University of Science and Technology, City University and Lingnan University is 65, while Chinese University decided recently that staff joining after 2016 could retire at 65 instead of 60.

All but one of the public universities turned down the Post’s request for the number of academics who had retired over the past five years. CityU said “around 70” had left at the age of 65 or above.

Who gets an extension?

In 2016, HKU changed its policy and began giving those turning 60 a new contract and a non-tenured position, instead of simply extending their existing contracts. For some that meant switching to non-tenured positions as lecturers and taking a pay cut. Similar accounts emerged at other universities.

Depending on individual performance, HKU may offer a longer contract of five years, or the more common extensions of one or two years.

Aside from the retirement age, there is dissatisfaction with the way extensions beyond 60 are decided too and some have accused university administrators of using the policy to get rid of “troublesome” staff.

It surprised many when well-known and outspoken HKU professors Johannes Chan Man-mun and Petula Ho Sik-ying were given only two-year extensions. Chan had been the longest serving law dean and Hong Kong’s first and only honorary senior counsel, while Ho is a leading expert on sexual and gender studies.

One of a handful of HKU academics who publicly supported the pro-democracy Occupy movement, Ho has spoken up on academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and was a co-founder of the now-defunct concern group HKU Vigilance.

She believes her outspokenness and active participation in civil society explain the short extension of her teaching contract.

Dr William Cheung Sing-wai wanted to continue as an associate professor in HKU’s electrical and electronic engineering department when he turned 60 last year, but his application to carry on was rejected.

That was despite his being listed among the university’s top 1 per cent of scholars last year in an annual internal search.

Cheung, chairman of HKU’s Academic Staff Association (ASA), was told that others could teach his courses, but his one on advanced-level Satellite Communications has not been offered since he left last year.

He was also told the seven doctoral students under his tutelage would be reassigned to his colleagues, but in the end no one had the expertise to coach them and they had to seek help from scholars at other universities, he said.

He had no choice but to retire, but remained as ASA chairman.

All applications from professors seeking to work beyond 60 go first to their department and faculty heads, who in turn make recommendations to a committee chaired by provost Paul Tam Kwong-hang or the vice-chancellor, depending on the applicant’s grade.

Jim felt the policy was bad, and said he had seen top researchers leave HKU over the years. He named Professor Brian Morton, a world-renowned marine biologist who spent almost 34 years at HKU doing pioneering research into local marine fauna and flora, and Professor Richard Corlett, an ecology expert.

Although it is many years since they left, Jim said: “It was silly for the school not to retain them.”

Morton, now 75 and retired, still has painful memories of turning 60 at HKU in 2003.

“I inquired about the possibility of an extension,” he told the Post. “I quickly discovered, however, that the process was both complex and lengthy and, again, both insulting and humiliating.

“After serving HKU for over 33 years as the pioneering teacher of marine biology … and participating in discussions and decisions of numerous government committees, I concluded, as a matter of personal pride, that I did not wish to be a part of any such degrading extension of service process.”

He returned to Britain where he kept up his research and interest in marine conservation.

Corlett left HKU in 2008 and went first to the National University of Singapore before joining the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, where he remains as director of the Centre for Integrative Conservation.

Those who remain are not necessarily good, but docile teachers. The good ones might not be allowed to stay
William Cheung, retired HKU professor

Looking back, he said he was not considering leaving HKU before its retirement age policy forced him to go. He said the “outdated and bad” policy made HKU “increasingly an outlier among international universities or in China”.

“I probably would have stayed, but I am now glad I didn’t,” said Corlett, who is 67 and has three more years on his Yunnan contract.

Cheung said he was the second ASA chairman in a row to fail to get an extension to work beyond 60, and that added to a perception university administrators used the retirement age policy to let go of “troublesome” staff. He continued as ASA chief because “no one would like to take up such a thorny role”.

The association made repeated calls over the years to raise the retirement age to 65, but failed every time, even after a 2013 staff survey showed an overwhelming proportion of academics were in favour of it.

Retired Baptist University journalism academic To Yiu-ming, who worked at the faculty and staff union for more than 13 years, said that as far as he knew, no union official had managed to secure an extension beyond 60.

“The senior management enjoys absolute power,” he said. “In exchange for teaching beyond 60, staff would need to know how to ‘cooperate’ with the school before reaching that age. Apparently it has helped to silence the staff and discourage them from criticising school policies or participating in union work.”

Cheung said: “Those who remain are not necessarily good, but docile teachers. The good ones might not be allowed to stay.”

Others say the retirement policy affects women more than men.

Professor Gina Marchetti, chair of the HKU arts faculty’s Committee on Gender Equality and Diversity, said there was an unspoken rule that only full professors were likely to get their contracts extended, and the only exceptions to the rule had been men in the faculty.

Women, she said, were disadvantaged in the race to become full professors as some might need time off for their families.

As of last year, women accounted for less than 30 per cent of associate professors and less than 20 per cent of full professors at HKU.

Marchetti urged the university to scrap the “demoralising” retirement policy which she said was a potential threat to academic freedom.

She said tenure was meant to enable academics to conduct research freely. “But when you limit tenure by age, there is basically no tenure,” she lamented.

HKU standing firm on retirement

Despite criticism and repeated calls for change, HKU appears unlikely to raise its retirement age any time soon.

In an internal email on September 13, HKU executive vice-president (administration and finance) Dr Steven Cannon announced that reappointment beyond 60 would now be applicable to all staff, but added: “Reappointment beyond retirement age is not a right. The overriding consideration behind whether or not a reappointment should be offered is whether it is in the university’s best interests to retain the appointee’s services.”

An HKU spokeswoman said the main considerations when offering reappointment after 60 were whether it would help the university “meet its strategic needs and funding priorities, and achieve high standards of continued and sustainable academic excellence”.

Provost Tam was at a forum on September 19 when students asked him about the much-criticised policy.

He said the university had to allocate limited resources carefully and needed to bring in new blood and ideas, and was committed to recruit, nurture and retain the best talent. It also had a robust system of peer assessment to gauge individual merit.

Explaining the need for older staff to make way, Tam cited his interest in football.

“I am a keen football player. I used to play forward, but as I get older, I get further back to midfield and … right back,” he said. “I accept that with changing circumstances, one can still contribute in many different ways.”

HKU did not disclose Tam’s age, citing privacy concerns, however, public data showed that Tam graduated from the university’s medical school in 1976.

Professor Zhang Xiang, who became HKU vice-chancellor in July and was present at the forum, added only that the retirement age of 60 had been in place “for many, many years” and was “not a new thing”.

Tam did not comment on whether the policy deserved reassessment, and declined to take questions from the Post after the forum.

Polytechnic University told the Post its prevailing policy was “appropriate” and it had no plans to change, while Education University and Baptist University said they reviewed their policies from time to time.

Elderly Commission chairman Dr Lam Ching-choi, who sits on the Executive Council which advises Hong Kong’s leader, agreed that the four universities with the earlier retirement age were lagging behind the practice elsewhere, but said it would be difficult for the government to weigh in because of the institutional autonomy the schools enjoyed.

He said the commission had been urging different organisations and companies to extend their retirement age to 65 or at least improve their practices in rehiring staff. Lam also said it was already relatively easier for educational institutions to implement such practices.

“As life expectancy increases, we should offer people a choice on whether to continue working, as a job – which gives one purpose in life – is actually the pillar for active and healthy ageing,” Lam said.

In the meantime, some academics are not prepared to wait for change.

Professor Timothy O’Leary, a co-founder of HKU Vigilance and former head of the school of humanities, was 51 and some years from retirement when he left in July to join the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“I don’t want to be in a position of having to basically beg for my job,” he told the Post before leaving Hong Kong.


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Aung San Suu Kyi: from Myanmar’s icon of democracy to collaborator in the Rohingya Muslim genocide

CommentInsight & OpinionAsia
2018-09-27

 

David I. Steinberg says Aung San Suu Kyi may care more about her country than her international reputation, but her dismissal of atrocities against the Rohingya may haunt Myanmar in the future
It “could have been handled better” must be the most anaemic, dismissive public comment by a national leader concerning one of the world’s most disastrous contemporary tragedies. Aung San Suu Kyi, state counsellor (virtual prime minister) of Myanmar and the civilian leader of that state, on an official visit to Vietnam, publicly dismissed the atrocities committed by Myanmese troops on this hapless, stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, some 700,000 of whom fled into Bangladesh and an estimated 10,000 died in what may be described as a pogrom. Mass rape and the execution of children have been documented.This from the Nobel laureate who has been held up in the Western world as the icon of democracy as she struggled against a military regime while under house arrest for some 15 years.It is true, as she has said, that she did not want to be regarded as a democratic icon, but rather as a politician trying to move her country along an unknown path to a form of democratic state. But she has basked in this positive international spotlight and received numerous international awards for her courage and commitment to democracy.But she has, thus far, dismissed what the United States and the United Nations have called ethnic cleansing, and what some have regarded as a form of genocide. Her inattention and even misleading public statements concerning the plight of the Rohingya have destroyed her international reputation, diminished foreign Western investment and tourism, and cast the reputation of her country into a deep morass from which escape may be long and arduous.

Compounding this horrific flight from democratic norms has been her insistence that two Burmese Reuters journalists have been properly tried and convicted for seven years in jail for reporting on one terrible incident involving military actions against the Rohingya.

Claiming they were properly convicted under a colonial-era official secrets act, she has showed that all her previous hortatory exhortations to adhere to the “rule of law” were essentially meaningless. One official indicated that the two reporters were set up by the military through planted material. The courts are not independent.

Whatever her private views of the Rohingya – and her support of their state repression is widely supported by the majority Buddhist population – Suu Kyi must try to maintain a delicate balance between her essentially civilian legislature and the military, which controls all state avenues of coercion and administration below the cabinet level.

If she is too critical of the military, then there are legal means under the constitution for the military to declare martial law and enact a reversion to even stricter control. The extensive reforms and liberalisation that have taken place under the previous administration of president Thein Sein  were both needed and broadly welcomed internally and externally, but the defining issue of the state in the West is now the tragic treatment of the Rohingya, not the progress that had been made under the previous administration.

The US and other Western states have strongly and rightly denounced the government for its actions and attitudes. This has angered the government, or at least those elements controlled by the military and the population, which is avowedly anti-Muslim in general and which regards the Rohingya as Bengalis who should not be in the country, while dampening relations with the US.

Into this breach of confidence have stepped the Chinese, who have supported the military’s version of events and refused to criticise their actions, perhaps because they fear unrest among the Muslim Uygur in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The military have claimed their response was to a security threat launched by a few ill-armed Muslim insurgents. The response by the government was inappropriate and completely out of proportion to the perceived problem. But the atrocities may well incite more coordinated and lethal external Muslim reactions. A couple of decades ago, Osama bin Laden complained about repression of Muslims in Myanmar.

There is no easy solution to this problem, given public sentiment in Myanmar. The Rohingya before the present debacle existed in the most constrained and controlled environment, without the basic elements of a reasonable existence. Even if they were to return, conditions would be abominable.

We may be blamed for simple condemnation and no effective action, but Myanmar’s military are the essential culprits and, alas, Aung San Suu Kyi is an unindicted co-conspirator.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus at Georgetown University


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When will Hong Kong get its first woman university vice-chancellor?

CommentInsight & OpinionHong Kong
2018-09-27

 

Katherine Forestier says Hong Kong should be embarrassed by the findings of too few women in academic research and senior management. This can change with an effort to promote an interest in research and open the top jobs to capable women candidates

 

Hong Kong, with its female chief executive, bureau chiefs, senior judges and business leaders, seems to be a place where women can thrive in leadership roles. 

One would expect this to be the case in universities. These are, after all, supposed to be the bastions of education, enlightenment and social innovation. However, the University Grants Committee (UGC) data published by the Post this week shows this is not so. Women are woefully under-represented in senior positions in these institutions, and even in the junior ranks.

Hong Kong has no excuses. Unlike in many other regions, women can get on with their professional careers more readily, and do so in many fields, partly because of the generous help other women give them in raising their children, and the family support networks they can draw on.

And the pipeline is there. In international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), Hong Kong girls have on average outperformed boys in science and do almost equally well in maths, at aged 15. They then go on to win the bulk of undergraduate places, 53.9 per cent in 2017/18, as well as the UGC-funded master’s places, at 62.9 per cent.

Yet, after that, women give up that lead, holding back from taking up research postgraduate places – 41.9 per cent are women – and then junior academic posts, accounting for just 33.7 per cent. Moreover, very few of those female research students are from Hong Kong – just 527, or 18 per cent of the total number of women on publicly funded programmes in 2017/18.

Our universities, too, fall behind on women’s participation in higher education leadership. The UGC data shows just 18.8 per cent of senior academic staff are women, with not a single one in the top leadership position. Contrast that with the global picture: among the top 200 universities, as ranked by Times Higher Education, 17 per cent are led by a woman.

In the UK, top universities such as Cambridge and Oxford have had women vice-chancellors, and 23 per cent of all institutions are now female-led. Female academic staff also account for 45.3 per cent of the total, a much higher proportion than in Hong Kong. Even so, the Equality Challenge Unit that promotes equity in higher education is concerned that the proportion is not higher.

Women’s failure to make inroads in more senior academic jobs is not unique to Hong Kong. In some of these places, there have been initiatives to address the problem. For example, the British Council organised the Women in Higher Education Leadership programme, bringing together women and men from around the world to share experiences, understand the issues, and advocate for change.

The Manifesto for Change agreed at the 2013 Going Global conference in Dubai was enthusiastically welcomed by the participants. The manifesto demanded that institutions be held to account on their gender equity in university rankings and quality indicators. The manifesto also called for a commitment to invest in women; greater transparency about the representation of women, including in research; and further international data gathering and research to find out what holds women back, and what enables their success.

It was really heartening that Times Higher Education responded almost immediately by adding gender equity to its global rankings. And some societies are now doing more to include equity and diversity issues in their quality indicators.

The UK’s 2021 Research Excellence Framework exercise, which determines research funding, includes, for the first time, an Equality Impact Assessment. Its “research environment” reports must make reference to the percentage of academic staff by gender, race and disability, and whether the institution has achieved the prestigious Athena SWAN awards for enabling women’s success in science research.

In Hong Kong, there are no system-wide initiatives such as the Athena SWAN Charter, or an Equality Challenge Unit pushing for change. The UGC’s sector-wide performance measures make no reference to equity and diversity, among staff or students. This contrasts with the concern to promote internationalisation, both at the strategic planning level and in university activities.

Universities across Hong Kong are now preparing for the Research Assessment Exercise 2020. Again, gender equity and diversity do not feature in any of the criteria for assessment.

Students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong celebrate their graduation. Hong Kong universities could be a beacon for gender equity and diversity in the region. Photo: David Wong

This exercise is closely modelled on the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework exercise. It has followed the UK in assessing, for the first time, the “impact” of research on the wider society. However, looking at the 2021 edition of the UK exercise, one wonders whether the moment is approaching when Hong Kong will part company from UK practices, because issues such as diversity and equity are just so far off the radar in Hong Kong higher education.

Hong Kong should not blindly follow the UK in its assessment processes. However, the latest UGC figures are a wake-up call. Universities and wider society should be reflecting on why women are not entering academia and progressing in adequate numbers – whether that be related to their relative lack of representation in science subjects that dominate university research agendas and vice-chancellor appointment preferences; the pressures women face in juggling their career and home lives; or chauvinistic cultures that corral women in lower positions and administrative posts.

Hong Kong universities could be a beacon on gender equity and diversity in the region, if they put these on the agenda, including in their quality assessment and planning exercises, and do much more to promote cultures that are genuinely inclusive, at all levels.

It is good that in some Hong Kong universities, women are forming groups to promote female interest in research and to address some of the barriers they face, and some institutions say they take note of gender in their recruitment.

There are women academics with the talent, seniority and leadership skills waiting in the wings for the top university jobs. It will be a travesty if they continue to be passed over.

Dr Katherine Forestier is adjunct assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, Department of International Education and Lifelong Learning, and led the British Council’s WHEL programme, 2011-2013


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If education reform is a priority in Singapore and Australia, why not in Hong Kong?

CommentInsight & OpinionHong Kong
2018-09-13

 

Kerry Kennedy says the system needs to be reformed at every level. Schools should be less exam-oriented, vocational education should not be second best, and the University Grants Committee should nurture creativity, not nip it in the bud

 

As the chief executive’s policy address approaches, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has the opportunity to create a new and vibrant education system. The world around us continues to change at a rapid pace. Yet, across all sectors of education in Hong Kong, there is little creativity or acknowledgement that change is needed.

The government’s review of the school curriculum drags on with little opportunity for public debate or discussion. The vocational education sector continues to be weighed down by poor public perceptions and underfunding. The University Grants Committee continues to restrain universities by measuring inputs and outputs, rather than supporting creativity and growth. The whole system is stagnating rather than innovating.

In other jurisdictions, such as Singapore and Australia, the reform of education is high on the political agenda. Although Singapore tops international assessments such as Pisa, its government wants students to do more than pass tests and examinations.

The Australian government has received a landmark report that recommends replacing national testing with more formative assessments that can help all students to learn. The focus in both jurisdictions is on students and how they can be better prepared for a challenging future – a future which is driven by technology and artificial intelligence, and which will need to be harnessed with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The reform of education in Hong Kong needs to be system-wide. Schools need to be able to provide curriculum experiences that allow students access to the latest thinking in maths, science and humanities. There is important content in these subjects but also significant processes linked to critical thinking and problem solving.

Singapore, for example, is reorienting its exam system to ensure these skills, rather than rote learning, figure prominently. All students in Hong Kong – especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – need to have access to these skills. But graduates of such a system need to have relevant post-school options.

The vocational education system needs upgrading to focus on fields relevant to the city’s future development. It cannot continue to be the second choice for those who do not get into public universities.

Countries such as Germany have shown how a well-regarded and funded vocational education system can propel innovation in strategic areas of development. Linking vocational education institutions and universities in Australia has demonstrated the kind of synergy that is possible when all elements of an education system work together.

In number, Hong Kong universities are few. Yet in terms of performance, as measured by international rankings, the quality is high. However, the vision of universities is constrained by the grants committee, as demonstrated by the recent case of City University’s veterinarian programme.

It was only the vision of the university’s president that drove the programme’s development. Now Hong Kong has a much needed public resource, but it took a decade to convince the UGC. Universities are natural places for innovation and they must be allowed to play their roles, without the burden of external regulation and intrusive oversight.

If the universities are not centres of the city’s innovative culture then funds are being wasted. If the UGC spends more time nurturing innovation and less time measuring and auditing, Hong Kong’s universities can scale even greater heights.

A massive reform is necessary after the stagnation of the past five years. It is an agenda that may not please everyone. Unsettling the way things are done, setting new directions and expecting better outcomes will be challenging for many people already in the system.

Yet the alternative is to do nothing or make marginal changes that will not make a difference. Hong Kong’s future can be brightened by a proper functioning education system producing at all levels graduates who can be change agents and innovators in their different areas of work.

It will take courage to expect changes across a broad front. Yet such expectations have to made clear, so individuals and organisations can step up and do what is required.

Far from faddish, they are changes needed to meet the future needs of Hong Kong and its young people in a challenging national and international environment. It is to be hoped that the chief executive is up to the challenge.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is adviser (academic development) at the Education University of Hong Kong


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If Hong Kong encroaches on ‘one country’, don’t cry when China erodes ‘two systems’

CommentInsight & OpinionHong Kong
2018-09-06

 

Philip Yeung says free speech in Hong Kong universities must have limits, if the city is to maintain the delicate balance of ‘one country, two systems’. It is one thing to have students fighting for universal suffrage, quite another for them to advocate separation

 

Free speech is a sacred cow in universities. Every academic leader worth his salt swears to uphold it. However, as its limits are being tested, it has become a contentious, but also fuzzy, concept. A year ago, 10 university presidents issued a joint statement declaring their opposition to “Hong Kong independence”.

But opposing it and banning talk of it are not the same thing. The head of Chinese University, for example, says that as long as the topic is discussed rationally and nonviolently, it is permissible, to which independence activists reply that they are in full compliance. The government wants to set a third condition: the activity in question must not breach Hong Kong law. Its argument is compelling. For, how do you defend something that is illegal? 

Barely into the first week of the school year, student leaders of three local universities have used the inauguration ceremony to spout off about being in favour of an independent Hong Kong. Like a spreading virus, they are sure to be followed by their peers in other universities.

But what is there to discuss? The topic is dead on arrival. Illegality aside, it is sheer insanity. Hong Kong can’t afford self-rule. Without China, it is doomed. Even our water supply comes from the north. Why waste time listening to the dribble of historically ignorant hotheads who are still wet behind the ears?

When Time magazine looked into the soul of Andy Chan Ho-tin, leader of the Hong Kong National Party, it found nothing there, no political road map, no author that has inspired him, no knowledge of Hong Kong history or Chinese history, and no roots.

In other words, this activist and his ilk are products of our failed education system. Instead of teaching them history, it fed them a wishy-washy subject called Liberal Studies that is supposed to be conducive to critical thinking. Students are critical all right, but only in a knee-jerk fashion.

In an alarming survey, 60 per cent of the under-30 demographic polled supported Taiwan independence. In this year’s DSE examinations, just over 10 per cent of the candidates took Chinese history, a subject that ought to have been mandatory. As a discipline, history is on life support in high schools and universities.

Until their joint statement, the different academic leaders handled student activism differently. At the height of the so-called “umbrella movement”, Baptist University president Albert Chan Sun-chi took a principled stand against students who carried yellow umbrellas at graduation ceremonies, refusing to hand them their degrees unless they conformed to decorum.

Tony Chan, his Hong Kong University of Science and Technology counterpart, dared not stir up the hornet’s nest and decided to be cute, calling such disruptive behaviour “creative”. For that, he was ridiculed as spineless. These are not good times to be university presidents. They have to walk a tightrope between tolerating disruptive student dissent and protecting free speech. Most tend to handle rebellious students gingerly.

Once “Hong Kong independence” reared its ugly head, however, it put a different complexion on the matter. Fighting for universal suffrage is one thing, advocating separation is quite another. The former falls under “two systems”, but the latter is a dagger thrust at “one country”.

Free speech purists forget this city has agreed to play by a different set of rules after the handover. If we accept the “one country, two systems” model, we must abide by what it entails. If we encroach on “one country”, then we mustn’t complain if it erodes “two systems”.

There is a delicate balance to be kept on this interactive principle, where more of one means less of the other. If you respect “one country”, you get more room under “two systems”. If you keep testing the limits of “one country”, then you can expect a tightening of “two systems”. To borrow a cliché, you can’t have your cake and eat it.

Remember that, though it irks Beijing, Hongkongers are still free to stage street protests over human rights issues. That’s nothing to be sneezed at, considering that we are now part of China. Would Britain, for all its vaunted respect for political rights, have tolerated open revolt for Hong Kong independence and hostility towards the sovereign during its rule? I think not.

Remember, too, that China has been fighting American encirclement. Hence, its determined effort to protect the vital sea lanes in the South China Sea to ensure the free flow of commerce for its booming economy. Hong Kong activists who openly fraternise with Taiwan separatists are treasonably playing with fire. Intoxicated by their 15 minutes of fame, courtesy of the international media, they are provocatively calling China a “neighbouring country”.

Universities should starve them of the oxygen of publicity and deny them venues for poisoning the minds of their peers. They should be shunned like outcasts who are on the wrong side of the law.

Would the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, for all its high-mindedness, have invited members of the Ku Klux Klan to speak? Free speech implies the exchange of considered views of informed minds. Why give empty-headed loudmouths a megaphone to spout an idea that has no life?

Should independence-related talk be taboo on campus? Well, not quite. I see value in public debate about the causation of local separatism, with sky-high rents and low wages crushing the dreams of the young. Beyond condemning their waywardness, we must understand it. To me, their rebellion smells like an impotent rage against a rat race they cannot win. Maybe it is not independence they want. It is hope they need.

Philip Yeung is a ghostwriter to university presidents and civic leader