Distinctions matter and two are especially important in our context: that between junior and senior faculty, and that between locals and expatriates. A third distinction, about which I shall say less because I know less, is between Hong Kong locals and their Mainland colleagues.
It is not reasonable to expect that the burden of defending academic life falls on all shoulders equally. Junior faculty, adjuncts, sessional instructors, and so-called research assistant professors are more vulnerable to management arbitrariness than their tenured and senior counterparts. Academics, tenured or not, who have young children to support will understandably prioritize family obligations over any other.
Similarly, the risks for locals are much higher than for expatriates because the costs for them are much greater. If worse comes to worst, expats will return home, whereas locals will flee home, wrenched from it, with all the grief that exile brings:
Where are you going
Tender little leaf
So far from your bough?
The wind tore me away
From the beech where I was born.Footnote 57
We have still to consider the most prominent and senior among Hong Kong’s professoriate, those with prestigious Chairs and international reputations, many of whom advise the UGC and RGC. I am especially sensitive to the conduct of fellow expatriates, people of roughly a similar age to myself, equal or higher in professorial rank, permanent residents of Hong Kong and thus members of its polity, entitled to vote and stand for office. It seems obvious that such expat professors had a duty to defend their more vulnerable colleagues, protect the academic space, and honestly report the truth about deteriorating conditions. With very few exceptions, they did not.Footnote 58 More often, it was less senior faculty who pushed back. One of these was a colleague, a native Hongkonger, on Lingnan’s Council, the supreme governing body of the university. Though only an associate professor, she called out each accretion of presidential power including the surveillance mentioned above.
Since the National Security Law was passed in 2021, all residents in Hong Kong face a very real danger to their livelihood, known in the vernacular as digital jail: the prospect of government’s freezing the assets, including bank accounts and pensions, of anyone whose behaviour is considered subversive, seditious, or treasonous. This sword hangs over expatriate and local academics alike, a point that should be borne in mind when, in the following paragraphs, I discuss the peculiarities of expatriate faculty. It also bears noting that university professors and managers who are married to, or partnered with, native Hongkongers or Mainlanders, occupy a more ambiguous, more stressful position than expatriates whose family bond is exclusively to other expatriates. My wife and I are Canadians who have no relatives in Hong Kong, and our exit out of Hong Kong was always to be Canada. But a European or North American professor with a Chinese wife or husband has no obvious place to repair. Leaving Hong Kong would also mean leaving family: parents, grandparents, siblings.
All the same, up to now, most expatriates in Hong Kong universities possess a layer of protection denied locals. This is not only because they played no conspicuous role in the democratic movement. Two other factors are also relevant. First, expatriate academics, typically those that are non-Cantonese speaking and preoccupied with their special subject area, have a history of compliance in Hong Kong; there is simply no need to deter them by punishing a few bad eggs. Besides, all university presidents are aware that the paucity of lucrative jobs, or even decent ones, in the West is a powerful incentive for Westerners to be well behaved in Hong Kong. Most of us had never had it so good; most of us will never have it so good elsewhere or again.
Second, an arrest or repatriation, or, far worse, an imprisonment under the National Security Law, would raise a hue and cry in the international community. Normally, this would not matter—Hong Kong authorities are by now accustomed to Western insults and menaces—except for one consideration. The authorities are proud of the city’s achievements, and among these is the high standing of Hong Kong universities. Of the 65 Asian universities ranked in 2021 by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS, a global higher education analytics company), two Hong Kong institutions were in the top 8, four in the top 20.Footnote 59 Or, taking the global rankings for the same year, of 1185 universities surveyed, two from Hong Kong—the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology—were in the top 30.Footnote 60 Comparable results, over the years, are recorded by the Times Higher Education rankings. To be sure, QS and THE have no metric to gauge academic freedom and may feel under no pressure to create one. Western universities, authoritarian themselves, would likely oppose it. Nonetheless, punitive actions bring bad publicity and there must be a compelling reason to provoke it. On the Mainland, the arrest and imprisonment of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in December 2018 combined retribution with a clear quid pro quo: release Huawei telecoms executive, Meng Wanzhou, from Canadian custody, and we’ll return the two Michaels.
By contrast, a high-profile expatriate event in a Hong Kong university would create only headaches. It would damage Hong Kong’s claim to be distinctive from China, a “world city”, open to international faculty, a place that respects the Basic Law guarantees of academic freedom. Granted, expatriates can be arrogant, provocative, and disrespectful, infuriatingly careless of Chinese “face”. But the barbarians have their uses, not least in university research exercises and in leveraging university rankings.
How were expatriate academics faring in the last year I worked in Hong Kong? How are they likely to behave in the foreseeable future? The answer to both questions is the same. Expatriate academics and the government have come to an understanding. Like locals, expats will keep their heads down and hands clean. Some topics—social, not political—will remain unproblematic, open for teaching, research, discussion, and publication: environmental degradation, demography and health, youth trends, poverty, economic inequality, the glass ceiling, crime and delinquency, pornography, homelessness, patterns of migration, and so forth. I hasten to add that these topics are not trivial and that academics in Hong Kong, locals and expats both, have an impressive track record illuminating them.
The door will also be left ajar to allow a coterie of professors to vaunt their radical credentials. Their focus will, again, not be on politics—elections, constitutional arrangements, civil rights, state censorship, political parties, and political protest—but on social topics such as LGBTQ. Post-colonial studies, a staple of departments of English, Chinese, and cultural studies, will continue its denunciation of Western “Orientalist” prejudices, another harmless area, as the CCP heartily concurs with all anti-occidental sentiment.Footnote 61 Likewise, accusations of anti-Asian, and particularly anti-Chinese, racism; White Supremacy; and xenophobia will be warmly welcomed, as will Critical Race Theory; Hong Kong universities can expect a steady stream of experts from Western countries expatiating on the horrors of their homeland before returning to it without fear. An intelligent mechanism, the Party smiles on this activity not just for its impotence but for its clues; it has helped the CCP become a dab hand at taunting Western countries, the USA in particular, with woke commentary, channelling the condemnation of American professors against their own society.Footnote 62 “Leave it to Western intellectuals to unmask their civilization, tear down its foundations, interpret its history as one long, dismal series of colonial aggressions and crimes against innocent victims. There really is no need for our Confucian Institutes. Anti-Western propaganda is the specialism, the gift, of their own political class.”
The CCP is aware, of course, that most academics in Hong Kong’s more prestigious universities received their graduate training in the West and that a large number, in the humanities and social sciences, were exposed to Identity Politics by their professors and fellow students. Some have returned to Hong Kong as true believers of the intersectional gospel; they preach it to their graduate students, hoping to clone them for faculty positions of their own. For now, the CCP takes a relaxed view of this trend in Hong Kong because it knows four important truths about the Western Woke World.
First, it knows of not a single instance when a communist regime, or any other, was toppled by preferred pronouns. The Party worries more about Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, and other vessels of the US Seventh Fleet, that barrel through the Taiwan Strait. Second, the CCP knows that the more Hongkongers lash themselves, and harangue Westerners, for misogyny, cis-gender heteronormativity, Islamophobia, homophobia, and a dozen other putative pathologies, the less focused they will be on the evisceration of political life in Hong Kong and the radical reordering of their society. Third, the CCP has noticed the pleasing affinity of Chinese and Western authoritarianisms. On some items, the Party is still not sure who influenced whom. “Consider: what we call subversion and seditious protest, you call ‘disinformation’ and ‘insurrection.’ We use CGTN to communicate official propaganda, you use CNN to do it. We impose a National Security Law on rebellious Hongkongers, you invoke an Emergency Act against rebellious Canadian truckers. We use the state to keep minds clean of hate speech, you employ Facebook and Google and Twitter to do the same. We employ the Central Security Bureau to investigate incorrect thinking, you task the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for the same purpose. To be sure, vaccine passports and social credit are our innovations, but we applaud how quickly you guys are catching up.”
Lastly, the CCP knows that Western-trained progressives in Hong Kong, natives and expats alike, will give a wide berth, as if it were a prairie fire, to the one identity that really matters to most Hong Kong people: the identity of Hongkonger, Hong Kong culture, Hong Kong history, the Hong Kong nation, "my city, my view, my home," to recall the slogan of House News, the predecessor of Stand News.Footnote 63 Instead, there will be copious lectures on “desire” and the Other. Masculinity will be deconstructed for the millionth time. Every long-standing convention will be exposed as a mask of power. But political tyranny will always be somewhere else and Hong Kong’s distinctiveness terra incognita. On its forlorn shores, Critical Theory will renounce its holy mission to be critical and acknowledge the limits of emancipation.
More sober academics—the majority in Hong Kong who look askance at Identity Politics—will make, already have made, their own concessions. Dangerous topics—the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the status of Taiwan and Tibet, the treatment of religious groups on the Mainland, the history of Hong Kong protests—will no longer be studied openly, which is to say they will no longer constitute research proposals for funding, either internally or through the Research Grants Council. Better to switch topics to Europe and North America or, in Asia, to swap political problems for social, economic, and environmental ones. And as Mainland academics replace Hongkongers, new names will shine in the firmament of political theory: Xiao Gongqin, Wang Shaoguang, Wang Hui, Jiang Shigong, and Pan Wei, scholars who, students will be informed, grasp far better than Western theorists (and unmentionable Hong Kong thinkers) the specificity of Chinese civilization and the kind of politics appropriate to it. Marxism is not Kantianism. Liberalism is not the Dáo.
And, for its part, the government will tolerate the occasional expatriate wild man or woman who bangs the democratic drum. “What harm, really, can they do? Why give them the attention they crave? Such vainglorious lunatics provoke incredulity more than they inspire awe. Even if some locals admire a gweilo’s nerve, they have no plans to emulate it.”
One last distinction among the faculty remains to be noted; it is the divide between local Hongkongers and Mainland colleagues. The latter tend not just to be more accommodating to power than the former, they also comprise an aggressive, pro-Beijing contingent that openly attacks pro-democracy professors. This minority is sometimes described as “nationalist”, a misleading designation; it conflates the interests of the Communist Party with that of the Chinese people, a gratuitous conceit as PRC citizens are never permitted to appraise the CCP’s performance in universal, fair, and competitive elections. Rather than nationalists, these Mainlanders are Party-ists, avid supporters of the government. That element is growing as Hong Kong universities employ ever greater numbers of Mainlanders. All the same, most Mainland scholars, so far as I could tell, were not true believers. They were something more understandable: people with highly attuned antennae who, since early youth, had learned to follow CCP cues and observe its red lines, aware that families back in China are potential objects of retaliation for the deeds of their children in Hong Kong. Despite all such deterrents, some scholars from China who work in Hong Kong detest the Communist Party and take large risks to stay truthful; I have been fortunate, over the years, to know a few of them personally.