Another Winter on Fire? The Unbearable Lightness of Hong Kong’s Tenacity

By Anatoly Oleksiyenko

Several days ago, I ran across the news that Times Higher Education ranked the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Education, where I work, number three in the reputational league table on education research. Colleagues and students greeted the news of their hard work paying off with jubilation, sharing and liking the announcement on social media. Seeing this natural reaction felt discombobulating. This is because I found myself scrolling through the notices on a nearly deserted campus, bearing visible scars of a recent occupation by protestors, and surrounded by a security cordon.

For much of the six months of unrest and increasing violence in the city, the university remained a sanctuary, despite being centre of student activism.  Now my campus is a battered fortress, temporarily devoid of its usual vibrancy.  In such a space, it is difficult not to wonder whether the level of our performance can be sustained. After all,  being among the best in the world requires an exceptional environment of academic freedom, experimental learning, international mobility, and, most importantly, scholarly and social confidence. These are the factors critical not only for retaining, but also for attracting the top local and international faculty and graduate students.

All these conditions existed before the summer of 2019, at the time when the THE was collecting and processing their rankings data. Will we able to restore them after this winter on fire sweeps through?

For someone who followed the 2014 events in Ukraine very closely, “winter on fire” is a signifier that sometimes feels like an eerie reenactment. Last week, as I left my office to catch a flight to Portland, Oregon, and fulfill my promise to present a research paper at the annual conference of the Association for Studies in Higher Education, I walked into a scene that felt both unreal and oddly familiar. The campus metro (MTR) entrance was surrounded by black-clad youths wearing gas masks, carrying baseball bats, and pouring kerosene on the barricades they erected out of chairs and tables to protect themselves from riot police storming the campus. That night, there had been a confrontation between police and students, and arrests were made at university residential hall. Students feared a police siege and more arrests. Their fears were fueled by police tactics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), which included firing tear gas and rubber bullets inside the campus.

While I was able to retreat and take a back exit through a cafeteria whose patrons were languidly sipping their morning coffee, I later learned that fires had been set at the MTR entrance, which was trashed by the protesters. More barricades went up around the campus, with Molotov cocktails piled up at the ready. Thankfully, these were never thrown. Instead, the protesters made liberal use of spray paint, covering much of the campus in revolutionary slogans and art.

Feeling lucky to catch a station-bound minibus outside, I felt relieved that my visiting friend from Michigan State University (and former OISE colleague), Riyad Shahjahan, flew back home the day before. While in Hong Kong, he gave a talk at Lingnan University about time and shame in the neoliberal academia, and joined a panel presentation on misconceptions of the world-class university rankings. Reflecting on what he said made me worry about whether I was doing the right thing to leave the campus in such troubled times.  Should I have stayed with my students and colleagues? Why would an international conference be more important? The intensifying debates about the city turning into a “police state” resonated ever louder in my head.

Two days earlier, Riyad and I walked calmly across Tuen Mun, not far away from Lingnan University, where our panel was held, and I had a strange feeling of piercing through parallel realities where peace co-existed with violence, security with abuse, and one reality could randomly penetrate the other. We did not feel threatened by the patrolling police, but there were reports of police brutality in other parts of the city. The wailing of sirens and multiplying police vans in Tuen Mun did not make it feel more secure. Nobody knew what to call these new realities or where the boundaries between them lay. Who could possibly care about painstaking academic efforts to find the right definitions, amidst shocking scenes of bloodshed featured on television and social media? Simon Marginson spoke at Lingnan University about academic responsibilities in an emerging Cold War, but he seemed just as nonplussed as we were about the new realities engulfing us.

I felt on edge the week I spent in Portland. How could one sit peacefully somewhere in a Hilton conference hall, across from the ocean, while social media buzzed with unsettling news on brutality in Hong Kong? The warring sides in “Asia’s World City” seemed to be adding more oil, rather than pouring water on the fire. The Bruce Lee inspired slogan, “be water, my friend” was not working so well anymore. The peaceful movement, which propelled millions of people to flow through the main thoroughfares in the early summer, congealed into islands of fiery battles with police and triads by the early winter.

Hong Kong’s tweetosphere magnified anxiety about arrests, suicides, killings and abuse of young people. The warring sides accused each other of provocations, while the militarization of city spaces became more menacing, as the public speculated about the local government serving as a puppet of Beijing. Videos circulating online showed Hong Kong policemen kicking journalists, firing tear gas at crowds, or stomping on protesters’ faces and backs. So at odds were these scenes with everything I had known about the city in my eleven years here, that there was a temptation to believe that these videos were fake, as some claimed.

Hong Kong students were blamed for unreasonable behaviors. Yet, unresolved resentment had been brewing on campuses since the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. The post-revolution tensions were implicit, but loomed larger while disparate stakeholder groups struggled over their identities, sense of ownership, and the future in “one country, two systems”. As disagreements between these groups grew, campuses became more polarized.

Meanwhile, university administrations chose to address the tensions by increasing the numbers and presence of security people, equipping classrooms with security access cards, regulating the placement of scholarly and civic posters, and launching schedule surveillance surveys. Step by step, the campuses introduced “improvements”, deliberately or inadvertently redefining and reducing public space. What did those intricate management maneuvers manifest? What was the purpose of mounting control over walls, classrooms and venues, staff and faculty time? Were they merely regular indicators of the world-class academia shamed by neoliberal stakeholders toward building a better controlled everything: education, society, and future? Where those measures specific and peculiar to Hong Kong? Why did it increasingly seem to me as if I had travelled back in time to the days of Soviet academia, back in the USSR? Alas, Hong Kong used to be, and deserved to be very different, didn’t it?

While the administrative novelties proliferated on the neoliberal campuses of Hong Kong, the stakeholder disagreements were further and further away from resolution. On my campus, conflicts between managers and student unions surfaced more often. Both sides accumulated more anger, despite efforts of executives and intellectuals to reduce the power struggle. In the days preceding the rise of barricades, the tension was manifested through increasingly furious and sprawling graffiti on the campus walls and floor tiles. The more effort the cleaners put into removing the black-lettered, multi-lingual calls for “liberty”, “resistance” (and later “revenge”), the more of those inscriptions resurfaced, larger and angrier.

Certainly, everyone hated the degradation of a usually spotless campus; at the same time, nobody knew how to handle the lack of civil dialogue. Instead, annoyance prevailed, with graffiti writers and cleaning staff facing off against each other in a duel of spray paint and mop. Just a minor example of the tug of war, this and other juxtapositions fuelled mistrust among the feuding camps.

Wracked by anxiety, I could not escape from my memories of the winter on fire in Ukraine. The fight against the corporate “rich and greedy” in that country, and the war against the abusive and retaliatory post-communist empire, seemed endless and in vain. It led only to more life-loss and umbrage, rather than to a resolution. The anger of the civil society over corruption and oligarchic betrayal was toxic, poisoning any possibility of constructive solutions. Driven by hatred, the activists had no time for developing collaborative strategies and societal reconciliation. The law of unintended consequences was at work.  Would Hong Kong’s civil society be able to escape the same fate?

I cannot help thinking that Hong Kong is different. On my return from Portland, I found the barricades gone and the cleaners hard at work. There are more security staff at all the gates, restricting access to outsiders (including the tai-chi practitioners who had been a regulars on campus) – making the public university less public. Suspicion lingers, as protesters on campuses were not only students. The ruined doors, burned lift buttons, and ubiquitous graffiti are a reminder of the continuing threat of battles ahead.

At the same time, I still feel that this place is more resilient than most. Hong Kong did not suffer from Stockholm syndrome, as Ukraine did; Hongkongers were educated in a meritocratic system, with uncorrupted notions of examination, unlike people in post-communist Ukraine. Hongkongers’ tenacity to perform at the highest global standards had given the city a huge advantage in higher learning, attracting thousands of students from mainland China and East Asia.

Hong Kong has a great capacity to learn and change, and this is a source of hope. This was evidenced as the public confidently and tenaciously led democratic candidates to a landslide victory over their opponents in the District Council Elections. The city continues to do business with rigor, and people continue to believe in their ability to persevere in handling difficult tasks. Should the global rankers introduce new criteria on defending democracy on campuses, very few in this city would doubt that they could compete for being among the top in the world. The spirit of perseverance and critical inquiry seems to be here to stay, contributing to academic freedom and excellence. This is the very spirit that drove our world-class ranking success over the previous decade.

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