May 30, 2023
SINGAPORE – A quarter century after Hong Kong’s return to Beijing’s rule, it is past due time for the city’s residents to change their mindset towards talented mainlanders and foreign professionals from diverse backgrounds living and working in the city, says the financial hub’s first minister to have been born and bred in mainland China.
“History has shown that when Hong Kong was very open in culture, the city experienced good development,” said Professor Sun Dong, Secretary for Innovation, Technology and Industry.
“As part of an international city, Hong Kongers should become more accepting of multiple cultures.”
Prof Sun, 56, was responding to questions about Hong Kongers’ reception to his status as the first “gang piao” among the city’s top officials and whether they would be prepared to accept more ministers like himself.
“Gang piao” – a term in Mandarin that directly translates to Hong Kong drifter – refers to educated mainland Chinese who live and work in the city.
Beijing-born Prof Sun took office on July 1, 2022, after more than 20 years as an academic at the City University of Hong Kong.
He was educated at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, obtained his doctorate at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto in Canada before settling down in Hong Kong in 2000.
With his expertise in robotics and biomedical engineering, he set up a start-up in Hong Kong in 2003 to facilitate knowledge transfer in the robotic manipulation of biological cells.
He spoke to The Straits Times last Wednesday while on a visit to Singapore to promote information technology exchange and collaboration between the two cities.
“Hong Kong needs to change,” he said. “Among Hong Kong’s government officials, I am the one with a major research and strong mainland background.
“After 25 years (since the handover), people should have come to accept this… The more important matter is whether people are professional and capable enough to do a good job and contribute to the city.”
Speaking in English from his suite at the Fullerton Hotel, Prof Sun smiled as he recounted how he had only a couple of weeks to make the move from academia to government after he accepted Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee’s invitation to join the Cabinet.
Prof Sun, who is married and whose family is based in Hong Kong, admitted with a laugh that he is still trying to improve his Cantonese proficiency, although he said he had made significant progress over the past year trying to interact more in the local dialect.
He pointed out, however, that “Mandarin is also one of Hong Kong’s official languages” and that he saw the use of Mandarin, or Putonghua, as “just a matter of habit and acceptance” as more of the city’s young people became better educated and more conversant in the language.
While the Hong Kong government recognises Chinese and English as its official languages, it does not specify the variety of “Chinese” to be used. The proliferation of Mandarin speakers across the city has been a source of angst and simmering resentment among locals, who perceive it as a threat to Cantonese.
The city’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific this month came under fire after members of its cabin crew on a flight from Chengdu were accused of making disparaging remarks in English and Cantonese about the mainland Chinese passengers’ inability to speak proper English.
Asked if he had ever faced ridicule or discrimination in his daily life in Hong Kong for his lack of Cantonese proficiency, Prof Sun skirted the topic more than once.
“It’s a matter of mentality (xin tai wen ti),” he said finally, with a touch of exasperation, lapsing momentarily into Mandarin.
“Of course, I try my best to speak as good Cantonese as I can, but I’d much rather focus on how to do my job well than to wonder whether my Cantonese is good enough to be accepted by the public.”
He said Hong Kongers needed a shift in mindset in terms of how they viewed international talent recruited to the city.
He was referring to a recent report citing statistics that showed academics of mainland Chinese origin in Hong Kong’s universities had in 2023 outnumbered local faculty for the first time.
Of the 5,120 academics employed by Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities this academic year, 35 per cent of them were of mainland origin compared with 32 per cent of Hong Kong academics, according to figures from the city’s University Grants Committee.
The report raised concerns that the trend could hurt Hong Kong’s culture of open research or shift its traditional areas of research excellence towards other areas dictated by China’s national priorities.
But Prof Sun noted that although the academics were of mainland origin, they were recruited internationally.
“This means they worked and studied abroad, and then because of their academic excellence, they were recruited by the Hong Kong universities,” he said.
He pointed out that very few of Hong Kong’s best students chose to study Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects – one of the city’s priorities in recent years – opting instead to focus on other areas like law and medicine.
“In contrast, in mainland China, many good students go into these (Stem) fields and they go on to study abroad as well… And mainland China has 1.4 billion people. So I’m not at all surprised that the number of faculty members with mainland Chinese background has been increasing in recent years.”
This is an ongoing trend in universities elsewhere in the world, including in Singapore, Prof Sun said, adding that he hoped more young Hong Kongers would choose to study Stem disciplines so that the city could have access to more local academics in these fields.
Associate Professor Alfred Wu, from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said the trend of having more mainland-origin academics in Hong Kong universities is “the product of the general political and economic change” in the city.
“The assumption is that they tend to be more amenable to government influence,” he said. “But given their varied background of typically having worked or studied in mainland China, Hong Kong and the United States, such academics could also be much more adept at navigating different political and educational systems.”
However, Prof Wu warned that Hong Kong’s growing focus on Stem disciplines may not be aligned with, and could therefore compromise, the city’s competitive edge as a business and financial centre.
Prof Sun did not see any incompatibility between Hong Kong’s aspirations to build up its Stem sectors and maintain its traditional expertise in other fields at the same time.
Recalling his impression of Hong Kong when he first set foot there to pursue doctoral studies in 1994, he said the city provided opportunities for people with ability and determination, regardless of their origin.
“Hong Kong is in a state of change,” he said. “And being an international city means we accept diverse cultures and talents from multiple backgrounds, even if they are of mainland origin.”