Two million people, one-quarter of Hong Kong, China’s residents, joined protests against an extradition bill.

The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Hong Kong researchers forge ties with mainland China even as protesters fight for autonomy

After a series of massive protests by Hong Kong’s residents, including many academics, the leaders of the semiautonomous Chinese city last week shelved controversial legislation that would have allowed people there to be extradited to mainland China. But even as that battle to preserve independence continues, Hong Kong’s researchers are forging closer ties with the mainland.

Those links will be strengthened this year, with several new cross-border funding programs set to make their first awards. And although many researchers welcome the new opportunities for funding and collaboration, some worry they could give Beijing greater influence over Hong Kong’s research agenda.

The tension arises from Hong Kong’s special political status. In 1997, China regained control of the former U.K colony under a “one country, two systems” policy that gives Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents a greater say in their economic and political affairs. Academic efforts have thrived under the arrangement. The city now hosts nearly 30,000 researchers, creating a per capita ratio triple that found on China’s mainland, according to United Nations statistics. Hong Kong’s research spending has risen from just 0.4% of its gross domestic product in 1998 to 0.8% in 2017. Several of the city’s universities are among the top 50 in the world, according to this year’s Times Higher Education rankings.

Research ties with mainland China have grown since the handover. In 1998, 16.5% of all scientific papers produced in Hong Kong involved collaborations with the mainland; by 2017, the share had jumped to 53.2%, information scientists Ma Qian and Li Wenlan of Tianjin University in China reported in September 2018 in Scientometrics.

Funding ties are also deepening. Hong Kong researchers have long been able to win grants from the Chinese government, but the money had to be spent within the mainland. Last year, however, the government dropped that requirement at the request of prominent Hong Kong scientists. In the first grants under the new policy, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) in May 2018 awarded 22 million Chinese yuan ($3.2 million) to 22 Hong Kong research groups.

Two new cross-border programs will announce their first grants later this year. One is backed by MOST and Hong Kong’s Innovation and Technology Bureau, and the other by Hong Kong’s Research Grants Council and China’s National Natural Science Foundation. The latter will focus on six research areas, including medicine and materials science.

Even as Hong Kong has strengthened scientific ties with the mainland, questions about the durability of the city’s special status have grown. The current protests began soon after the extradition bill was unveiled in April. Opponents said it would enable mainland authorities to seize political opponents on flimsy charges. And more than 1700 academics from around the world voiced support for their Hong Kong colleagues by signing an online petition warning that the bill was “jeopardizing the rule of law and human rights in Hong Kong.” On 15 June, Hong Kong officials “indefinitely” postponed action on the bill.

The bill was “definitely a concern for academics,” because it could have had “a chilling effect on people working on so-called ‘sensitive’ topics,” says philosopher Timothy O’Leary of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who taught at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) for 17 years. Some scientists also worried the law would hamper recruitment efforts.

Authorities on both sides argue cross-border collaborations advance science and help Hong Kong become an innovation hub. But such schemes are also “a very useful mechanism” for integrating Hong Kong into China, notes one senior Hong Kong scientist, who asked to remain anonymous because of the issue’s sensitivity. Even so, he says it would be a leap from tighter integration “to Hong Kong institutions losing their autonomy.”

Other researchers are even more sanguine. HKU microbiologist Yuen Kwok-Yung doubts “such additional funding will erode academic freedom in [Hong Kong] as long as … the independent judiciary and free press are still being protected.” And O’Leary says the recent protests show that Hongkongers “will not easily acquiesce to an encroachment on their civil liberties.” But he urges the city’s universities to follow the protesters’ lead “and continue to insist on the nonnegotiable importance of academic freedom.”