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Will China be the next leader in higher education? It has the potential, but not without European and North American partnerships, a Harvard professor says

At the FCC’s Club Lunch on June 26, William Kirby, the T. M. Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University, talked about his book Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China, which was published last year.

His latest work chronicles the origins of modern universities in Europe and how they have evolved through American and Chinese institutions. It also discusses China’s role in global tertiary leadership amidst changing philosophies towards university governance and academic freedom.

The talk was moderated by Jennifer Jett, the FCC’s First Vice-President.

After giving an overview of how German institutions provided the foundation for American universities to improve and expand upon, Professor Kirby described how the US was “disinvesting” in its own public universities while China’s academic aspirations continued to rise.

“How could China not lead?” he asked the audience. To Kirby, there is no doubt that China has the capacity to lead the world in higher education.

Professor William Kirby. Photo: FCC

However, he believes China’s goal cannot be reached without partnerships with universities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere across the globe. Kirby emphasized that both intellectually and architecturally, Chinese universities (as well as American universities) are linked to the international community. 

He expressed concern about China’s relative lack of international students, particularly Americans, but said their numbers were likely to increase now that China has lifted its “zero-Covid” restrictions.

The other major obstacle to the advancement of Chinese universities, Professor Kirby said, is political interference, citing the seven topics that mainland universities are forbidden from discussing.

Universities should be a place where “not one question cannot be asked,” he said, explaining that even if they are unpleasant or unpopular, ideas should be heard instead of silenced.

Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China is now available on Amazon.

Click here to watch the full talk on the FCC’s YouTube channel:

Wither Hong Kong’s District Councils? FCC panelists divided over the future of the city’s local elections

At the FCC’s June 14th lunch discussion on the government’s reform plan for the District Councils, a panel of former and current district councillors remained divided over the future of the city’s elections.

Moderated by FCC President Lee Williamson, the panel consisted of Legislative Council member Joephy Chan, district councillors Christine Fong and Paul Zimmerman (who is retiring at the end of his term), and former district councillor Fred Li.

While both Zimmerman and Li opposed the reforms, Fong said that she is welcome to any changes. Chan maintained the strongest support for a District Council overhaul, claiming the proposals were “much needed” and that they put Hong Kong “back on track according to the Basic Law.”

Joephy Chan. Photo: FCC

Last month, Chief Executive John Lee announced the reform plan which would result in only 88 of the 470 District Council seats being directly elected, less than 20% of the total. Currently, the proportion of directly elected seats is around 90%. 

The new plan would also increase the number of government-appointed seats to 179, while 176 seats would be decided by indirect elections which require candidates to secure nominations from three committees and be screened for political loyalty and national security risks. 

Li, as a member of the District Board which preceded the District Councils, noted that the new reforms (and the Legislative Council reforms) were in direct response to 2019, but he mainly criticized the increase of government appointees. He described his past experience of working with appointees as “nonsense” and clarified that he was never an appointee himself when challenged by the panel. 

“This is like chopping off your ears or being blindfolded,” said Zimmerman, the strongest critic on the panel. He questioned the necessity of reforms given the existence of the National Security Law and the oaths that public figures must take before entering office. Zimmerman also faced questions from Chan regarding his own resignation and was accused of quitting too quickly without giving the government a chance for dialogue. 

Paul Zimmerman. Photo: FCC

“[I] will not be a flag for dramatic change,” Zimmerman said to defend himself. “[I] cannot pretend it’s a democratic system.”

Fong reminded the panel that the District Councils are meant to make residents’ lives better and have a duty to serve people. 

Christine Fong. Photo: FCC

In response to a question if there was any more room for democracy in Hong Kong, Chan claimed that direct elections don’t work due to their “loss of efficiency” and “political chaos.” She cited cases of filibustering in the 2015 District Council elections and emphasized that Hong Kong’s political system shouldn’t be judged by Western values. 

An attendee commented that filibustering exists on all sides of the spectrum, citing the various District Council walkouts staged by pro-establishment officials after the implementation of the Beijing-imposed National Security Law. 

Former FCC president and Director of HKU Journalism Keith Richburg asked about future voter turnout. The 2019 District Council elections had around a 70% voter turnout almost all in favor for the pro-democracy camp, but the 2021 Legislative Council elections had barely 30% of the city’s voters participate. 

Chan reiterated that voter turnout was not the sole indicator of a good election and compared local elections to elections in overseas cities like New York. 

Li opposed such a comparison and instead suggested Hong Kong compare itself to its own history. To him, not doing so would be like “putting our heads under sand.”

Fred Li. Photo: FCC

In a final question posed by Hong Kong Free Press, the panelists were asked if government appointees truly understand their role and the communities they serve, and what the voter turnout for the upcoming November elections might mean for Hong Kong. 

“Fantastic! Low turnout!” Zimmerman said with a chuckle. 

Chan mentioned that she collaborates with government appointees to do district work, and then criticised Western politicians for polarising people to vote with emotion. She also reiterated her earlier point that a high voter turnout doesn’t signify a good election or that the people care about their livelihood. To her, these circumstances mean that the voters care more about politics above all else. 

Sharing his final thoughts on the district council reforms, Li said, “We’ve lost checks and balances.”

Click here to watch the full panel discussion on YouTube:

Out of Ireland by Mark O’Neill – FCC Book Talk

Showcasing his latest book Out of Ireland, author Mark O’Neill held an informative and humorous talk about the Irish diaspora across Asia.

O’Neill began with the life-changing discovery of his father’s Irish accent in his teenage years. Up until that point, he had lived his entire life in London and had no idea he was Irish. His father had never spoken in his true voice after years of developing a “perfect BBC” accent in order to advance in his career.

“For the first time, my sister and I realized that our father wasn’t the person we thought he was,” O’Neill said.

Since then, O’Neill took it upon himself to learn more about his heritage and what it really means to be an Irish citizen in the world, and eventually recorded everything he learned in Out of Ireland.

Throughout his travels – especially throughout Asia – he met all walks of life hailing from his father’s homeland: athletes, businessmen, musicians, nurses, police officers, and even priests.  

O’Neill went into further detail on the parts of his book that highlighted Irish people living in Hong Kong. He elaborated on Sister Mary Aquinas, one of the twelve Irish nurses that helped eradicate tuberculosis from the city, as well as Father Patrick McGovern, the Jesuit Legislative Council member who represented the working class of Hong Kong and what O’Neill described as “a pretty amazing thing.”

The second half of O’Neill’s talk explored the ways in which Chinese people from Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan had influenced Ireland, namely opening restaurants, building churches, and in the case of Hazel Chu, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, becoming an elected official.

When pressed further by one of the lunch talk’s attendees on Chinese influence on Ireland, specifically Hong Kong’s influence on the nation, O’Neill also mentioned university students, fintech and pharmaceutical professionals, and Kwanghi Chan, a Hong Kong-born celebrity chef who’s become a household name in Ireland.

Watch the full book talk below:

FCC Statement on Political Cartoonist Zunzi

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong (FCC) expresses concern over the termination of prominent Hong Kong political cartoonist Wong Kei-Kwan’s comic series.
Wong’s cartoons, published under the pseudonym Zunzi, ceased to be published in local media outlet Ming Pao from May 14, 2023.
The move to suspend Wong’s cartoons came as government officials have publicly criticized his cartoons for a number of months.
The FCC notes that the decision to stop publishing Wong’s cartoons is a further blow to press freedom in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly told the public that freedom of the press and freedom of speech, as enshrined in the city’s Basic Law and National Security Law, is not at risk. The FCC supports the right of media professionals to continue to enjoy those freedoms under the laws of Hong Kong.
In addition to our continued proactive engagement with relevant government departments, we have reached out to Ming Pao for dialogue about this decision.

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