An academia trapped in chains

South China Morning Post  |  Sep 4, 2000

By Sin-ming Shaw

Universities would be shackled if they operated as some business figures suggest they should, writes Sin-ming Shaw

MANY IN THE business elite are unhappy over university polling, while the University of Hong Kong (HKU) inquiry continues into whether pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu was subject to political pressure from the Chief Executive via senior HKU staff. Peter Woo Kwong-ching, prominent tycoon, former trustee of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a current trustee of Columbia University in New York from where he received a master of business administration (MBA), has argued that politically sensitive projects by an academic generate "unnecessary" controversies, inappropriate for a university to sponsor.

Mr Woo has cited the absence of poll-taking by academics at Oxford and Cambridge universities in England, and Harvard and Columbia universities in the United States, to cast doubt on whether Dr Chung should be doing such work on campus. He also questioned whether the pollster could commentate on his findings objectively.

Since this view is broadly shared in Hong Kong's business and political establishment, it would be useful to examine the argument if only to promote a broader public understanding of what a modern university should or should not, does or does not, do.

An elementary point must first be made: whether an academic should be conducting polls, designing spaceships, or advising presidents or dictators under the name of a university is a matter between the academic and the university. It is not self-evident that a university should or should not shelter any of these activities under its name.

Princeton University in the US, one of the world's richest, to this day has refused to establish a law, business or medical school. Yet Princeton's position does not negate the rationale of having such schools at its peer institutions. By the same token, if academics at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Columbia did conduct polls in the universities' names, should universities in Hong Kong follow suit?

Great universities thrive on controversies. The top American universities and politics have been intimately intertwined since President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a graduate of Columbia Law School, and President Dwight Eisenhower, a former president of Columbia, drew heavily on the university to form their brains trusts. There is nothing controversial about academics getting involved in political activities unrelated to teaching. Many do both at the same time. These "public intellectuals" have long claimed that their work in the real world helps their purely intellectual endeavour as professors. No one has proved otherwise.

At other times, influential conservatives in American society harshly criticised Columbia and Harvard for being too liberal, labelling them communist outposts to subvert American minds. Liberals and conservatives often attack these universities at the same time for opposite reasons: one cries, "Too liberal," the other, "Too reactionary".

To avoid controversy just to stay out of political trouble has never been high on any academic agenda. In fact, academics thrive on it. Among many examples is the work done at Harvard and Columbia for the US Government during the late 1960s and early 70s, while the unpopular Vietnam War continued, and which led to vigorous protests by the researchers' teachers and colleagues; and the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb, undertaken at Columbia in New York.

The lay society welcomes academic involvement in such controversies precisely because it looks to the universities as a source of critical thinking to help evaluate whether its government is wasting taxpayers' money and is therefore abusing power. Polls are just one channel for the public to express feelings along the way to the next elections.

Harvard's Kennedy School of Government has extensive connections with politics and has many programmes funded by foreign governments, including China, to train their officials. Scholars have strong and opposing views on this. It is not self-evident why a university founded on openness and democratic values should be training officials from those governments that consider democracy a threat to their power and who would not blink at crushing unarmed professors or students. On the other hand, those who favour such programmes argue that it is better to have them study at Harvard so that when they return to their homeland, they know there is a better way to organise a society than through tyranny.

The proper forum to discuss such issues is the university itself. Once it decides a project can go ahead, it should stand by its academics regardless of whether the work is controversial, unpopular, displeasing to the powerful outside the university, or to idealistic students and scholars within. That is what academic freedom is about. Without it Harvard and Cambridge could never have become what they are - symbols of academic excellence and sources of creative ideas. A university's leaders stand at the front gate to ensure its independence. Only the mediocre ones cave in to outside pressure.

Mr Woo and others claim that famous pollsters such as the Gallup group have never commented on their polling results, and suggest that Dr Chung has compromised his objectivity by doing so. In fact, the analysis pages of The New York Times have published articles by American pollsters, including Mr Gallup, on their work. But the argument is irrelevant.

All social scientists know that absolute objectivity in studying human behaviour is rarely, if at all, possible. Social scientists would agree that a study is objective if its assumptions are clearly stated, data is adequate and the methodology defined. The act of commenting on research results does not compromise the validity of the study. Each is complementary to the other.

A generation ago, Professor Alfred C. Kinsey at Indiana University in the US carried out research on American sexual behaviour in his times. Not only did he produce statistics, he wrote reams of comment and analysis. He was widely attacked by religious groups, parents, and even university trustees for lacking professional ethics and objectivity. Some accused him of corrupting the morals of American society, especially of the young. These were serious charges. But the university stood by him and his Institute for Sex Research on campus. His work is now considered a classic.

When Harvard was planning its business school at the end of the 18th century, many scholars there objected to having a trade school in their midst sharing the name of a great university. Until recently, Oxford and Cambridge were against having such schools since their main purpose - to train students to make a buck more cleverly - is barely related to turning out young ladies and gentlemen of culture and intellectual rigour, which they saw as their principal mission.

It is debatable whether an MBA graduate really knows how to make money faster or whether the world is better off with so many holders of such degrees, but few would now argue that a university should not establish a trade school on its campus. Could not the same rationale apply to having an academic institute specialising in taking polls?

Polling techniques are derived from mathematical statistics. It is a discipline at least as defensible academically, if not morally, as training future investment bankers and brokers, many of whom will someday end up peddling over-priced Internet stocks or property to the less sophisticated retail investors. At least polling by academics is done with some intellectual rigour. Academics jealously guard their reputation, as it follows them to their next job.

What often distinguishes a good university from a mediocre one is whether its leaders stand by what their members do, and do not succumb to powerful, non-academic figures who would not blink at walking over academics for political expediency, sometimes even in the name of academic freedom.

Sin-ming Shaw, a visiting scholar at Harvard, was a lecturer at Columbia University

Back to a culture of subservience

South China Morning Post  |  Aug 27, 2000

By Sin-ming Shaw

The Robert Chung saga highlights the desire of the SAR's ruling elite to return to Confucian values of obedience

AS Hong Kong awaits the formal publication of the conclusions of the independent inquiry headed by Mr Justice Noel Power into whether a senior government official attempted to interfere with Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu's polling activities - which were yesterday submitted to the University of Hong Kong's governing council - it is a rare person in the SAR who has not already formed an opinion as to what must have happened.

Mr Justice Power has hinted at a possible non-conclusion by imposing the harsh criterion of "beyond a reasonable doubt" to guide his final report as if he were dealing with a criminal case in a courtroom in which witnesses were under oath to tell the truth, and nothing but. Since this was a mere fact-finding inquiry, no one was under oath and even the inquiry panel's lawyer, Patrick Fung Pak-tung, SC, asked on live television whether the contradictions in the different accounts of events meant that someone must be "lying in his evidence".

Just as in the celebrated case of former American football star O. J. Simpson, acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend, most people who followed that case with any common sense had a view on who the killer was - yes, even beyond a reasonable doubt. In Hong Kong, it is not about a murder but an attempt to interfere. So an intelligent conclusion does not hinge on complicated DNA analyses or forensic hypotheses.

This saga involves far more serious issues than whether Tung Chee-hwa's senior special adviser, Andrew Lo Cheung-on, was only acting as a humble "junior person" - a "parrot" looking for intellectual enlightenment - when he went to see the University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor, Professor Cheng Yiu-chung, to discuss Dr Chung's opinion polls.

Or whether the vice-chancellor had a habit of "mumbling" to himself and this was mistaken by others as a directive.

Or whether Dr Chung is effectively a Freudian basket case looking for positive reinforcement from the Chief Executive to gratify his fragile ego.

This is about the ethical behaviour of people in high places. It is about how power ought or ought not to be exercised in a civilised society. Perhaps the most relevant issue is whether Hong Kong's future lies in discarding its liberal democratic yearnings in favour of reverting back to an orderly, Confucian past that puts a premium on authority and obedience; or should this society keep building on its emerging democratic institutions to become a truly modern civil society?

It is clear that the Chief Executive, his allies in the Executive Council and his pro-communist allies outside the Government favour reversion. In their minds, to revert to China's past values is not only a matter of racial pride, it is patriotic. Authority, obedience and stability above all, are cherished slogans of China's top leaders. It is this mindset that helps explain much of the SAR Government's behaviour. In their minds, since Mr Tung's inauguration, it is beyond any shadow of doubt that those who are not compliant are unpatriotic and un-Chinese.

Under such a mindset, those who are pro-China, pro-communist are friends, while those such as the Democratic Party, Apple Daily and South China Morning Post are all enemies.

Last month, when Mr Tung decided to reveal he had abandoned his housing target of 85,000 units two years earlier, he selected only six pro-government newspapers representing 25 per cent of the readership for an exclusive interview, shutting out the rest of the media including the Hong Kong Economic Journal, the only serious intellectual Chinese-language paper published in the SAR. The message is clear: if you are not my friend, you are out.

University of Hong Kong Professor Ying Chan, Dr Chung's current boss but a peripheral figure in the polling saga, was most poignant in pointing out in her final presentation the corrosive effect of a "culture of subservience" evident in the sequence of events starting from Mr Lo's supposedly "humble" visit to the open letters which Dr Chung sent out.

Unfortunately, Professor Chan did not pursue this excellent theme by asking whether this culture was only limited to the principles of this saga or was endemic of Hong Kong society as a whole. Instead, as if to prove the existence of that very culture she denounced, she sided with her seniors and lashed out at Dr Chung for having blown the whistle over nothing. She claimed there was no infringement of academic freedom as Dr Chung was never stopped from doing his work. It must have slipped her mind that if polling work had in fact been stopped, an inquiry would have been unnecessary.

Is there a culture of subservience in Hong Kong? If so, is it so well implanted in the Chinese psyche that it only takes a slight nudge by the political leaders to activate it, infecting even the academic elite? Is it only a matter of time before such feudal values of subservience return as Hong Kong's dominant value system to shape how seven million of the freest Chinese in the People's Republic will relate to their government and fellow citizens, their professors and employers in the years ahead?

Indeed, is it possible that the numerous social and political conflicts since Mr Tung's inauguration reflect the anxieties of a significant segment of Hong Kong's population that has internalised many of the liberal democratic values natural to a society of people who cherish freedom? Is it possible that they fear Mr Tung, by his language and style of politics, may be pulling Hong Kong towards a communist China in values and habits? Mr Tung has the right to find comfortable camaraderie in the company of communists, but not many other people in Hong Kong do this. In fact, even on the mainland, few people do this. Offspring of senior communist leaders are among the most anti-communist critics one encounters in China, or at Harvard University.

If, in fact, this Government is not in touch with the yearnings of a large number of Hong Kong people, then it is inevitable that more conflicts will occur in the future, for they reflect genuine differences in values between the ruler and the ruled.

Conflicts are inevitable in any society. Democratic institutions are invented precisely to resolve conflicting demands by different groups in a fair and peaceful way. It is messy, but as former British prime minister Winston Churchill said, democracy is a terrible system but the alternatives are even worse.

It is rare that an executive-led government can act fairly and wisely as the final arbiter of such conflicts. And a preponderance of examples throughout history proves beyond any reasonable doubt that an executive-led government will, in the end, fail to be fair and wise.

Hong Kong under British colonialism worked because Hong Kong people made an implicit pact with the Brits. Shield us from the communists, let us make money, govern us well, give us an impartial legal system, and we will let you have a monopoly on power.

But there has been no such pact since July 1, 1997. The Basic Law outlines a programme of governance many people across the political spectrum believe is unsuited to solving today's problems. Yet, Mr Tung and his allies seem to believe even that programme is too fast for the good of Hong Kong. There is clearly a vast gap between the ruler and the ruled and the present political system is an obstacle to narrowing that gap.

Mr Tung and his allies among the elite are instinctively anti-democratic. They do strongly and genuinely believe that democracy is a destructive force unsuitable for the Chinese people.

The supreme irony is that an increasing number of people in China, including government cadres, have come to believe that only restoring democracy in China can solve its many political, social and economic problems. They consider people such as Hong Kong's Chief Executive and his local communist allies curious relics of the past who are even more "leftist" in their thinking than some of the mainland leaders.

Andrew Lo and Professor Cheng's actions in the Robert Chung saga are reminders that Hong Kong's political and intellectual elite, far from being a potential guide to China's future, may even be out of tune with their own community here in Hong Kong.

Sin-ming Shaw is a visiting scholar in Chinese history at Harvard University

Time for Tung to stop this abuse of power

South China Morning Post  |  Jul 25, 2000

By Sin-ming Shaw

The Chief Executive should fire his meddling special assistant Andrew Lo, says

By Sin-ming Shaw

TUNG CHEE-HWA is a proud traditionalist. Now he has a chance to start a new tradition, under which those in power take responsibility for their actions, by asking Andrew Lo Cheung-on, his senior special assistant, to leave.

Mr Lo has been behaving as if he were the consigliere to the Godfather - the "special adviser" to Marlon Brando's Don Corleone immortalised by Robert Duval in the classic Hollywood movie. Mr Lo disgraces the noble profession of serving the public by abusing his position of power.

He grossly overplayed his hand by visiting the University of Hong Kong to relay his concerns to the vice-chancellor about the quality and methodology of polling expert, Professor Robert Chung Ting-yiu.

If Vice-Chancellor Cheng Yiu-chung had acted like a true scholar, he would have answered Mr Lo with a long silent look. If Mr Lo had persisted, Professor Cheng should have calmly told him that whether Dr Chung's work was good or mediocre was a proper subject for open, critical debate by the pollster's peers, and that Mr Lo would be welcome to participate by submitting a well-argued paper for publication. Government officials around the world regularly argue their views in quality journals.

Instead, Professor Cheng, who is well known for his ability to mix with the powerful, sacrificed sound academic principles to remain in their good books. Soon afterwards, Professor Cheng's deputy, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Wong Siu-lun, twice called Dr Chung in for a "friendly chat".

This case was not the first in which Mr Lo used his position to influence non-government organisations. Dr Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, Vice-Chancellor of Chinese University, said yesterday that Mr Lo had also met him to discuss the university's polling work.

While officials around the world often feel they get unfair treatment by the press and complain loudly, Mr Lo went beyond mere words. He took action in a way that is most disturbing in a society where the rule of law is still taken seriously.

The Asian Wall Street Journal reported last week that last autumn, Mr Lo asked several of Hong Kong's largest real-estate companies to withhold advertising from the Apple Daily. The Chief Executive is known to enormously dislike that mass-market daily because of its persistent criticism of his policies.

In response to the Journal article, Mr Lo denied any such action. However, the essential facts of what he did had been well known by the foreign press since last winter.

The reason the story was not published sooner was because the real-estate executives involved would not initially corroborate the story for the record. They believed Mr Lo was carrying out Mr Tung's order. It was also believed some Executive Council members were supportive of Mr Lo's action.

Advertising was withheld from the Apple Daily for three months before it resumed late last year. There were two main reasons why the boycott was eventually lifted. Late last year several foreign reporters began to research the incident. Some called Mr Lo for a comment. Mr Lo did not return calls. He would have been correct in assuming that Mr Tung's credibility would have been severely damaged if the boycott, then in progress, had got into the world press.

The Apple Daily's senior management, astonished by the blatant pressure, approached several Beijing confidants to inquire whether the boycott had been initiated by Beijing. Some pleaded ignorance, others were embarrassed. The fact was that Beijing had no such policy. Nor were the top leaders aware of the boycott, though the former premier, Li Peng, shares Mr Tung's distaste of Apple Daily.

Saner minds in Mr Tung's administration prevailed and the boycott was eventually lifted allowing the property developers to feel politically safe to advertise in it again. The paper has the second biggest circulation in Hong Kong, and property developers understandably wanted to reach as many potential buyers as possible by placing advertisements in it.

After Mr Lo's well-reported intrusion into academia, some of the real-estate tycoons who were circumspect nine months ago must have realised that a cancer was growing in Hong Kong that could destroy its basic fabric. They finally decided to speak to the press.

But several questions remain unanswered. Did Mr Lo act alone, without the backing of other senior members of Mr Tung's inner circle? Who else in the Government knew about the boycott?

Mr Tung's late father was a legendary capitalist, even if his first born son sometimes acts like a paternalistic communist. Mr Tung must know that when a private company in Hong Kong no longer feels free to choose who to do business with and how to do it, then this Chinese society, still the freest (so far) in the People's Republic, is on its way to becoming just another mainland city. Beijing surely does not need another one.

Mr Lo would be disingenuous to insist that what he did on his own did not carry the power associated with his office. In the real world, proximity to power is power. Few individuals have Mr Lo's access to the Chief Executive and Mr Lo is well aware of his privileged position.

A senior official also loses his "personal" capacity in what he does. That is why government officers must take extra care in what they do and say even privately, let alone publicly, for the public generally considers what officials do as an act of the Government.

Mr Tung claims he never ordered Mr Lo to organise a boycott against the Apple Daily, nor that he asked Mr Lo to talk to anyone at the University of Hong Kong about Dr Chung. Since Mr Lo has done both, the Chief Executive must make it clear that he disapproves.

Mr Tung must not let the issue be clouded by his well-known tendency to confuse private loyalty to his staff with his responsibility to the seven million SAR citizens who pay his salary. Mr Lo is a public servant, not Mr Tung's private employee. Mr Tung must convince an already jaded public about his own integrity by firing Mr Lo, whose behaviour has betrayed the public trust as well as Mr Tung's. He should reassure Hong Kong that no official in his administration will be allowed to intimidate any citizens.

If Mr Tung does not do so, then the world would be correct to assume that Mr Lo was in fact carrying out Mr Tung's wishes. If Mr Lo acted on his own without prior approval by his boss, then the Chief Executive, by letting Mr Lo keep his job, would be in effect taking responsibility for what his underling has done. There is no reason for Mr Tung to do so. Mr Lo must go.

Sin-ming Shaw is a commentator on current affairs and a visiting scholar at Harvard University

History by The Defected

Hong Kong Economic Journal   |  Jul 22, 2000

By Sin-ming Shaw