Academics at a new campus in mainland China run by a leading Hong Kong university must abide by the law when researching sensitive topics such as Beijing’s treatment of Uygurs in far-western Xinjiang, the head of the new branch has said.
Professor Lionel Ni Ming-shuan, who was appointed to lead the Guangzhou campus of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), also said Hong Kong students could take courses offered by the facility.
In his first interview with local media since taking up the position last month, Ni said the new campus in Guangzhou would enjoy “academic freedom that’s known to any major university”.
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“We cannot tell faculty what to do, or what not to do. But a very important [thing] is that they have to obey the local laws,” Ni, 69, said when asked whether researchers would be permitted to cover sensitive topics such as Beijing’s handling of the mostly Muslim Uygurs.
Western nations and human rights groups have accused Chinese authorities of detaining and torturing Uygurs and other minorities in camps in the Xinjiang region.
Beijing has rejected the accusations and insists the facilities are “vocational training centres” which help stamp out poverty and extremism.
“Research-wise, we don’t dictate any subject that [academics] have to do. But again, the way they do research will be subjected to the [existing] standards,” Ni said.
While universities in Hong Kong must promote national security education under a law that came into effect last June, students at the Guangzhou campus were unlikely to be subject to the requirement, he said.
HKUST ranked 27th among 1,000 global institutions in the latest Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, rising five spots from last year.
The new campus is located in the heart of the Greater Bay Area – Beijing’s plan to transform Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong province into a technological and economic powerhouse by 2035.
The blueprint allows Hong Kong universities to expand over the border and receive resources and support from mainland provincial governments.
Chinese University opened its Shenzhen campus in 2014, while Baptist University has been running the United International College in Zhuhai jointly with Beijing Normal University since 2005.
Plans are in the works for the University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen, Polytechnic University in Foshan, City University in Dongguan and the Open University in Zhaoqing.
HKUST, which is expected to receive more than 30 billion (US$3.86 billion) in subsidies from the Guangzhou government, intends to open the campus in September next year. Management expects international students to make up as much as 20 per cent of enrolments within three years and have about 4,000 postgraduates by 2027. Undergraduate students will be recruited afterwards.
Under a pilot scheme linked to the university’s bay area expansion, about 90 per cent of more than 260 students are from the mainland, while the remainder are from Hong Kong and overseas.
Ni, a chair professor in computer science and engineering, said new programmes at the Guangzhou campus would be different from those offered at its Hong Kong facility. Students in both places could take courses online from the two campuses.
Courses available in the Guangzhou branch include urban governance, innovation and public policies, artificial intelligence and ocean and atmospheric sciences.
The management plans to recruit 400 faculty staff in the first five years. More than 60 academics, including about 20 from the Hong Kong campus, have been hired so far.
English will be the primary language on campus and Ni stressed the Guangzhou branch aimed to attract global talent.
“A multicultural faculty is very important,” he said. “In fact, right now, we put all the priority in [recruiting] non-Chinese faculty worldwide.”