What Hong Kong scientists’ questions about their new access to mainland China funding reveal

Gap between thinking in city and on mainland illustrates how different narratives can lead to opposite interpretations, which can defeat good intentions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 10:09pm

President Xi Jinping gave Hong Kong a new mission to become an “international innovation and technology hub”, while the city’s top scientists wrote to him asking for national funding and expressing their keenness to contribute to the motherland.

That’s how the story started. Yet, when Xi’s instruction was made public last week, it produced an unexpected side effect: questions as to whether Beijing’s funding was conditional on being “patriotic” and whether that would affect academic freedom.

It may seem like something has gone wrong, considering this somewhat surprising response to a well-received and encouraging policy directive. But it could not be more telling in reflecting the gap between thinking in Hong Kong and on the mainland. It illustrates how different narratives can lead to opposite interpretations, which can defeat good intentions. 

Take a look at what Xi did after receiving a letter jointly signed by 40 Hong Kong members of the two most distinguished national academies of science and engineering research, appealing for “cross-border usage” of national funds.

He instructed the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Science and Technology to “come up with detailed policies to solve [the problem]”, stressing that Hong Kong had plenty of “patriotic and high-quality” scientific talent. The two sides should better leverage each other’s strengths so as to boost economic development and improve people’s livelihoods in line with the “one country, two systems” formula. 

Obviously Beijing sees it as patriotism when Hong Kong scientists express a desire to do more for national development, even if by means of seeking funding they used to have no access to, and by complaining about the high tariff imposed on cross-border movement of scientific research equipment – thanks, ironically, to the “two systems” policy the city enjoys.

National funding, which means mainland taxpayers’ money, has long been restricted to research institutes across the border to prevent abuse. 

That is understandable. Imagine the reaction in Hong Kong if local taxpayers’ money were given to mainland researchers for projects up north. The political storm it would unleash must be the very last thing the administration wants to see.

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With Xi’s instruction, the funding restriction has been swiftly lifted on the mainland side. To Beijing, any research that benefits the country and Hong Kong is naturally “patriotic”, but there seems to be an issue in terms of expression. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor dismissed concerns about research freedom, saying it was just a matter of “terminology” and there was no need to read too much into it. Loving the country and Hong Kong was nothing unusual, she added.

But Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung, the city’s minister in charge of innovation, offered interesting input. While echoing Lam’s suggestion that “loving the country and Hong Kong” was just popular jargon on the mainland, he revealed that among those who wrote to Xi, “quite a few are foreign passport holders”.

What was Yang’s logic here? If the use of the word “patriotism” has caused uneasiness locally, was Yang suggesting there was no need to worry because some scientists were not even Chinese citizens and therefore not subject to Beijing’s conditions in that respect? Or was he trying to ease people’s minds by implying that those with foreign nationalities would not have to compromise?

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Don’t forget: China is considering allowing foreign companies to take part in its “Made in China 2025” strategic programmes. It either shows Beijing’s acceptance of foreign scientists or there are some from overseas who are eager to get involved in China’s hi-tech development.

Does it sound like a reminder to Hong Kong now? 

Controversy over nationality or patriotism may well turn out to be a storm in a teacup. What is more pressing is whether the city can accomplish this “innovation hub” mission – a self-invited task from the scientists’ own appeal letter.