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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


Academic degrees - and the manifold non-scholastic means employed to obtain them - have a long past, in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the Chinese world. Every so often, a storm in a tea- cup erupts when it's found that a public figure doesn't have the academic credentials their promotional materials suggest.

Sometimes, these claims are blatant, easily proven fibs. Usually it's a case of people implying they possess qualifications from brand-name institutions by saying they studied there. Their attendance may have been limited to a long-ago, summer-school English programme, but never mind: they still 'studied' there.

In traditional Chinese society, social status came from education: an educated person had studied the classics. To be accepted as a 'superior person' in the Chinese world view, one simply had to have an imperial degree.

In the 19th century, the cash-strapped Chinese government sold degrees - much as the medieval Catholic Church sold indulgences - to raise funds. With an imperial degree, a successful merchant, industrialist or other aspirant in search of social status (who may have been virtually illiterate) was entitled to wear mandarin robes with rank-defining squares on the front, hats with particular decorations - such as coral buttons or egret's feathers - and was accorded the status and rank of a 'genuine' mandarin. Of course, these outward displays were intensely coveted and people vied enormously with one another to get them.

A degree allowed the holder to add the suffix 'qua' to their name, which signified the rank of mandarin (but not official). Many of the old-time Canton merchants such as Howqua - the Jardine, Matheson and Company comprador reputed to be the wealthiest man in the world in the 1830s - deployed this status-enhancing addition.

Possession of these baubles was not limited to residents in China. Many of the Chinese elite in the Straits Settlements, Malaya or the Dutch East Indies - mostly triad members, too - also acquired them. These titles made them understandable culturally to otherwise illiterate Chinese migrants unfamiliar with European modes of governance, which in turn made them useful people to help control Chinese migrant populations.

It's the same today. All of Hong Kong's tertiary institutions are culpable, to some extent, in the award of honoris causa higher degrees. Give enough money to a local institution and, sooner or later, you can call yourself Doctor So-and-So. A cynical - but sadly accurate - reflection of contemporary academic life.

Other 'qualifications' are straight-out purchases, mostly from United States diploma mills, with the 'degree' awarded for 'life credits' and other woolly headed notions. Check out the major Chinese charities for some eyebrow-raising examples.

Then there are those who are too dopey or dubious - or both - to even be awarded a Hong Kong honorary degree. These make substantial donations to some small college in (usually) the southern US, and then before long, Hong Kong society sees a newly proclaimed HonD from Central Buttcrack State College, or some other world-class institution.

Honorary doctorates are not the only coveted awards. In the desperate desire for status-markers, other titles - some more hilarious than the last - are somehow acquired and paraded. Hong Kong even boasts one Chinese holder of a Constantinople dukedom. Like many other aspects of local life, you couldn't make that one up.

The imperial ranks held by most early members of the Man Mo Temple and Tung Wah Hospital committees were acquired with money - not through study.