Don’t overlook the strategic value of HK$1b scholarship fund for ‘One Belt, One Road’ students

Gary Wong says criticism of Leung Chun-ying’s scheme is short-sighted, as it can boost Hong Kong’s soft power – so long as the government funds it responsibly

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 February, 2016, 2:21pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 February, 2016, 9:30am

One of the most controversial policies of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s recent policy address was the plan to inject HK$1 billion into scholarships for students in countries along “One Belt, One Road” to study at Hong Kong universities. The government unveiled plans to add 10 scholarship places each year, until there are 100 recipients.

READ MORE: Hong Kong leader reveals details of the city’s game plan for One Belt, One Road strategy

How can the government justify the scheme to the public and narrow-minded politicians who seem to lack a strategic vision?

The proposal has attracted a lot of criticism. Some politicians and members of the general public complain that the scholarship ignores the needs of local students, while others believe Hong Kong is simply seeking to please Beijing. There are even those who claim it is a violation of Article 106 of the Basic Law because the scholarship funds would not be for Hong Kong’s own needs.

While Leung has had problems gaining public trust in general, and disappointed some with his handling of education issues, the establishment of the scholarship in itself is worthy of support. So, how can the government justify the scheme to the public and narrow-minded politicians who seem to lack a strategic vision for the city?

For the answer ,we should look to Harvard academic Joseph Nye’s theories of “hard” and “soft” power. Nye proposed, among other ideas, that economically robust countries and regions that do not have military hard power should consider setting up scholarships for overseas talent to strengthen their soft power. He sees this as an effective foreign policy tool to promote cultural exchanges, attract international talent and also stimulate economic growth.

As early as 1953, the British government was already granting scholarships to foreign students. One of the most famous is the Chevening Scholarship, which began in 1983 and aims to build long-term and positive relations between the UK and future leaders of the world in order to strengthen the country’s diplomatic goals and increase its soft power.

In 2013 and 2014, the British government injected £17 million (HK$192 million) and £18 million respectively into the Chevening Scholarship, for some 650 foreign students from more than 100 countries to pursue a master’s degree in the UK. Last year, Britain ploughed even more money into Chevening scholarships – £46 million – to increase its coverage to 160 countries and regions.

It can push local universities into embracing internationalisation, with a move away from just accepting mainland students

The UK has three scholarship schemes. Total expenditure amounted to £73 million in 2015, a 62 per cent increase on the 2014 figure.

Last month, during a gathering with 10 British members of parliament, I asked them what they thought of spending public money on such scholarships. None believed it benefited outsiders at the expense of local citizens. In fact, many countries (Germany and the US, for example) have similar government scholarship schemes.

There are three long-term strategic goals that the belt and road scholarship scheme can achieve. First, it can push local universities into embracing internationalisation, with a move away from just accepting mainland students.

Second, it can attract global talent from countries along the belt and road initiative to come to Hong Kong, make use of the city’s business advantages to develop new markets and find new opportunities. Third, the more international talent Hong Kong can attract, the less chance there is that it will become “mainlandised”.

READ MORE: Hong Kong education secretary defends HK$1b scholarship fund for One Belt, One Road students

In this case, the city can fully utilise the unique “one country, two systems” structure to enhance its soft power and have a say on the international stage. While Hong Kong has no diplomatic power as such, we cannot ignore the fact that the “two systems” principle does give the city certain rights in external affairs. It is this unique structure that has helped build Hong Kong’s international influence and meets its own needs.

One big issue remains, however, and that is the HK$1 billion figure. “One Belt, One Road” involves some 60 core countries, and Hong Kong must decide which countries to target.

Does it have plans to attract graduates to stay, work and create economic value and soft power for Hong Kong? If the government wants to use taxpayers’ money, it needs to justify such a large investment.

When there are still an inadequate number of University Grants Committee-funded places at local universities, when free early childhood education is yet to be implemented, and when the student-teacher ratio in secondary schools is still in need of improvement, should the government suddenly pour HK$1 billion into a scholarship scheme for overseas students?

Perhaps the Hong Kong government could learn from Britain’s method for approving international scholarships: the amount each year depends on the political and economic situation at the time. Surely that’s a more rational way to go about things.

Gary Wong is a governor at the Path of Democracy think tank and a Chevening Scholar