The Role of Universities in Hong Kong: Setting the Record Straight

Image by Pawel Kuczynski.

There appears to be a common misconception among the pro-Beijing media and government in Hong Kong. Their contention is seemingly as follows: Both students (and staff) should shut up, accept what they are told by the authorities and study. Apart from being ridiculously condescending for the future of society, it poses some major concerns as to how anyone could even come to that conclusion and still be qualified to hold such positions.

A universities role in society extends far further than academic regurgitation; a phrase used to depict a student who merely memorises a textbook and repeats it in a misguided attempt to gain high marks. Of course, some subjects will require a degree of repetition; such as those in the sciences, but taking such an attitude is both lazy and cowardly, as well as being detrimental to society. It is clear that a student must become a “gadfly”, a term used by Plato to describe someone that does not accept the status quo of society by posing controversial but necessary questions in order to wake up the sleeping public. I state this because we live in an age of “unenlightenment”; there is not enough people willing to undertake the steps necessary to critique and analyse before submitting their reason for public judgement, instead simply accepting what they are told by an authority figure. This failure leads to a community lacking in free-thought, enclosed by collapsing boundaries of stale and uninspired ideas, leaving them susceptible to being victims of governmental and authoritarian abuse.

Students have become ardent protesters in Hong Kong. Photo by Steve Eason.

Students have become ardent protesters in Hong Kong. Photo by Steve Eason.

The provocation of progressive and open-minded discussion can lead to a society which is better able to hold its leaders accountable, since it is only then that we are better able to question their methods and decisions. Whether it be refuting government press releases in a deeper search for the truth, or raising objections to proposed laws in order for an unnecessary restriction to be stopped whilst a pioneering replacement can be developed; we must continue to propose concepts which do not fall in line with the current direction; it is from the campus of a University that one can discover and attune such theories. We must remember that Hong Kong is not a democratic place, so, without such probing questions, how can we ensure that the people are heard? How can the population understand that there is an alternative method to the standard rhetoric emanating from Government House unless they see the tangible attempts of others? What is most dangerous however, is the possibility (and reality) that holding a dissenting opinion is so readily stamped out that raising it would go against the norm of society, thus increasing self-censorship as people seek to fit in.

Cartoon by Ali Farzat.

Cartoon by Ali Farzat.

The role of the academia is not to “protect” students from discovering radical perceptions. It is to inspire the breaking of boundaries. In fact, the problem with academics is contained within the idea that graduating with a distinction is more important than your productivity to society. It can be suggest that, as a university is a public institution, the staff are just as much the educational servants of the public as they are the students although far more indirectly. The university lecturer is there to pose questions about the times in which we live to students, in order for them to go out and ask their own questions. Thus it is simply impossible for an educational institutional, for example, to not be political. After all, education is a quest for the truth, a mission of paramount importance to discover the finest solutions to contemporary issues and politics in Hong Kong, whether it be the Chief Executive not once, but twice appointing his former allies to new jobs on University Councils, not protecting their citizens from abduction or proposing aggressive and misleading legislation under the guise of copyright. A university should not be a degree factory, or a stepping stone to producing career drones, it is the single strongest force for the evolution of populations, hence why dictatorial powers continuously wish to control education, and suggest that anyone inquisitive enough to not accept boundaries is like a drug addict or are misguided. The generation before, and the leaders of the current do not have a self-contained right to profess higher wisdom. In fact, they hold more responsibility for the current state of affairs for which the objectors and studious wish to advance. We should absolutely praise the parents and staff of students who do not conspire to silence. In a world where the government truly was for the best interests of their people, one would not have their security threatened for asking questions, seeking reality and airing ideas. There is no “half-state” of freedom. It is either an absolute or a myth.

It is time therefore to reject the premise that a university, its staff and its students play no larger role in society than examination setters and examination sitters. The unenlightened conformists who are too fainthearted or idle to wake up, interrogate and debate what is presented to us, are pitfalls to progression. A developed community is one which allows people to put forward experimental theories for judgement securing it from exploitation. Achieving that, is the role of the university in modern society.

Callum Phillips
About Callum Phillips
Callum Phillips hails from a small town in Wales and is a reluctant Law student at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Leicester. His interests lie in Governance, Human Rights, Social Activism and generally questioning authority. While he is in Hong Kong he has become a very vocal campaigner and a staunch pro-democratic & morality-centred commentator. Tweet him @CallumPhillips8