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22 November 2012

Why not Hong Kong?

University president Tony Chan explains why you should do your Bachelor in Asia and why China hasn't created a Bill Gates, yet.

Published in the Die Zeit, literally "The Time" or "Times", is a well-regarded German national weekly newspaper.

English translation

Why not Hong Kong?

University president Tony Chan explains why you should do your Bachelor in Asia and why China hasn't created a Bill Gates, yet.

By Frederike Lübke

Zeit: Mister Chan, you as the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology would like to attract more Germans to your university. Of whom are you thinking?
Chan: You can come to us as an exchange student to take a Master's degree. If you have already completed a PhD, you can apply for a job with us. The Hong Kong secondary school system has just been shortened by a year, which means that our undergraduate population has suddenly increased by one third and we are employing about 100 additional faculty members. We would also like to attract school leavers straight from the A level and tell them: It may sound like a crazy idea, but consider doing your Bachelor degree in Hong Kong.

Zeit: Why should they do that?
Chan: There are plenty of reasons. Whenever you leave your own culture and comfort zone, you learn something about yourself, which you wouldn't experience otherwise. Hong Kong is an international city, but with excellent connections to China. Shanghai is only two hours away. If you want to build up a network in Asia, the city is a great base. For example, if somebody works for Siemens in ten years, there is a high probability that the company will have something to do with China. And if you then have former classmates who are also working for large companies there, this will be very helpful.

Zeit: How would you convince German students?
Chan: Because times are changing. A hundred years ago, Europe was the intellectual center of the world. Then the USA became a huge, dynamic force as far as innovation and creativity are concerned. Nowadays, many people get their education in the USA and then move to Asia, because at the end everything is about getting a job. Young academics will go where the work is.

Zeit: For fifteen years already, Hong Kong does not longer belong to Britain but to China. What about the academic freedom?
Chan: Many western media believe that Hong Kong has lost its freedom, but I can assure you: We have full academic freedom! Although we belong to China, we have our own political system. We have a free press and free elections. The political system isn't fully democratic yet, but it is moving in that direction. By the way, a Hong Kong passport takes you to more countries without a visa than an American passport does.

Zeit: You teach economics to Chinese students although China still has a kind of planned economy. Isn't that a contradiction?
Chan: China is actually very capitalist, too. Competition exists all over the world.

Zeit: But you receive money from China, right?
Chan: No, we don't receive any money. We have our own currency. Of course, we can apply for research grants from China, but we can do the same at the European Research Council.

Zeit: Many Chinese businessmen and women take courses at your university.
Chan: Yes. They pay their tuition fees like any other students. Hong Kong is really quite different from China. As University President, I don't receive any calls from a Ministry in Beijing. We are not subordinated to the Chinese Ministry of Education, but to the Hong Kong Government. Our university has an academic Senate just as many universities in US do. I am the Chairman of the Senate and even I cannot force our faculty members to do anything they don't want to do on academic matters.

Zeit: What do you think of German universities?
Chan: They have produced a number of Nobel Prize winners and have contributed not only to German culture but also to the whole world. Germany has world-class industries. German products aren't cheap, but they are popular because of their high quality. Germany can thank its universities for this. However, if you press me to make a critical remark ...

Zeit: By all means
Chan: Europe is a rich continent and therefore people are self-satisfied. If you live in Berlin, you don't even feel the need to get to know Munich. Moreover, if someone wants to gain international experience, he or she may just go to France. I've noticed that many professors teach at the same university where they studied. Some of them were even born in the same city. There is nothing wrong with that, but just consider that you miss the chance to meet smart people somewhere else, for example in the United States. In the USA, around 30 to 40 percent of the professors, were not born in the USA. American universities want to have the smartest people, no matter where they come from. This is what makes the system so strong.

Zeit: On the international list of College rankings, your university was number 33. This is far better than all German universities. What is your own measure of excellence?
Chan: Ideally, I would like all my students to be successful. I don't mean that they should earn a lot of money, but that they make a contribution to society and are personally happy. Those are the basic pre-conditions. When I see who manages to succeed in these respects, I'm under no illusion that it is always the students who do best in their examinations.

Zeit: How do you explain this?
Chan: Perhaps they have concentrated too much on preparing for the examinations or they may be lacking in soft skills. How to persuade someone, you cannot learn through examinations. This has to be acquired on the playing fields or through making friends. In Asia one of the strongest traditions is respect for the elderly. This has its advantages, because this makes a society stable. The disadvantage is that we therefore don't have a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

Zeit: What has this to do with respect?
Chan: Just imagine Bill Gates in Asia. He has his place at Harvard. At the end of his first semester, he says to his parents: Mum, Dad, I want to quit university. I've met this friend who has just developed a program called MS Dos. His parents would have got upset and said: What? We've gone to so much trouble to help you get into Harvard and you want to give it up? Forget it. You're 17. You know nothing about the world. It's better to become a lawyer or a doctor.

Zeit: So you need more rebels?
Chan: I wish we had a bit more resistance in Asia, but I don't want to make sweeping statements. Just look at how the students from different countries perform in the international rankings. Americans are terrible, Germans are better and Hong Kong students are even better. But when we measure creativity, the Americans are outstanding. Which is better? Our cultural context is simply different from that of America and it isn't going to change overnight.


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