Beijing surprised Hong Kong University during its 100th birthday celebration yesterday with a new programme to dramatically expand opportunities for its students and professors to study on the mainland.
The plan - announced by presumptive premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang during a speech to commemorate the university's centennial - would allow as many as 1,000 students and academics to participate annually in exchange programmes and research projects with mainland educational institutions.
'The central government will set up specific funds to support 1,000 students and teachers of the University of Hong Kong yearly to go to the mainland to study, exchange, and launch scientific research,' Li told 600 guests gathered in Loke Yew Hall.
'What is more, the country will also support the launch of comprehensive and in-depth co-operation between other Hong Kong and mainland higher education institutions in order to help teachers and students get a better understanding of the mainland and familiarise them with the situations of the country,' the vice-premier added.
The programme, which Li said would start next year, appeared to catch everyone in attendance unaware, even HKU administrators.
Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Amy Tsui Bik-may said the university was not given advance word of the announcement. She called it a pleasant surprise because local professors often had difficulty even applying for mainland funds.
'There are already many exchange programmes for students and academic staff,' Tsui said. 'This time, it includes research collaboration. It is also a recognition of the achievements of Hong Kong scholars in scientific research.'
The speech was also notable for Li's occasional use of English between praise for the university, where most classes are taught in the language of its British colonial founders. Mainland leaders rarely speak in any tongue other than Chinese.
'HKU is for Hong Kong, attracting talent and educating people to promote Hong Kong's prosperity,' said Li, who is widely expected to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao after a 2013 leadership shuffle. 'HKU is for China. It has become a key higher-education institution in China, playing an increasingly important role in China's development and its integration with the world.'
Li said that he had gained a deeper understanding of Hong Kong by the end of his three-day visit.
'Hong Kong's role in the mainland's economic reform and opening up is irreplaceable,' he said, praising Hongkongers as 'dedicated and professional', and Hong Kong society as 'open, pluralistic and vibrant'.