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Universities have played an important role in social movements around the world. Some became bastions of reform. Some led uprisings. Others were pulled into uprisings that devastated the cities in which they were located. Some cities and their universities have come out of it stronger; others never fully recovered. Among the earliest were the University of Paris Uprising of 1229 and the Beijing May 4 Movement of 1919 led by Peking and other universities. The University of California, Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in 1968 affected nearby San Francisco, while the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City pulled in New York University. These flagship universities and their cities remain globally prominent today. The Hong Kong protest movement of 2019 included three universities ranked in the top 100 and five in the top 200 by Times Higher Education. Can Hong Kong and its universities recover? If so, how?

In 1997, Hong Kong was reunited with China after 155 years of British colonial rule as a result of the 19th-century Opium Wars. Hong Kong became a special administrative region (SAR) of China under a "one-country, two-systems" arrangement -- an agreement that it would maintain a high degree of autonomy for 50 years until 2047. Hong Kong maintains its own currency, legal system, uncensored internet, freedom of speech and immigration laws.

After passage of legislation for universal suffrage failed to pass in 2014, tensions grew, culminating in June 2019, when the chief executive of Hong Kong introduced a bill in the Legislature that would repatriate anyone in Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland for alleged crimes against China. This legislation brought one million of Hong Kong's seven million citizens to the streets in a peaceful protest. When the chief executive refused to withdraw the repatriation bill, two million people took to the streets in another peaceful protest. When government still refused to budge, the anger boiled over in the form of violent protests, vandalism and clashes with police that engulfed the city, first on weekends, then on an almost daily basis. Most protesters were under 30 years old and clearly concerned for their lives in post-2047 Hong Kong.

Although one of the safest cities in the world for decades, Hong Kong was on the verge of collapse. The movement has no designated leaders, and protesters rely on social media to organize themselves. The protesters split into 10 or 20 groups and went to various parts of the city. Many roads, highways, subway stations, train lines and a major tunnel were shut down by the protesters. Mainland China-owned businesses, hundreds of bank branches, restaurants, supermarkets and shops were smashed or burned. Despite the fact that a large proportion of people live below the poverty line, there was no looting.

Much of the local population was patient with the disruptions, and office workers in the central district joined the protests on their lunch breaks. The turmoil continued for five months until a districtwide election was held, in which the pan-democratic parties won almost 90 percent of 452 seats in a landslide, pressuring the government to respond to protester demands.

Several university campuses eventually became sites of violent confrontation. At one campus, police in body armor fired 1,500 rounds of tear gas and 1,200 rounds of rubber bullets at students and other protesters. On another campus, the police recovered 3,800 petrol bombs prepared by the protesters to be used against the police. University and school leaders had made an effort to persuade students to avoid a confrontation with the police. Nine university presidents issued a statement calling for the government to resolve the political deadlock. The presidents said it was regrettable that the crisis had turned universities into battlefields. They declared that “any demand that the universities can simply fix the problem is disconnected from reality. These complicated and challenging situations neither originate from the universities, nor can they be resolved through university disciplinary processes.” All 11 publicly funded universities canceled classes for the rest of the year.

Being the second-largest economy in the world has made governance from Beijing far more complex for the Chinese leadership than in the early days of economic mobilization; Hong Kong adds further complexity. The government’s Greater Bay Area Initiative aims to engage young Hong Kongers in South China, but not enough students have yet shown interest in that or efforts to introduce a national education curriculum.

If the central government permits full democracy in Hong Kong, there is a concern that it could upset the stability of South China. The generation in power in Beijing remembers China’s turmoil of the mid-1960s to mid-'70s. Beginning in 1979, the Party reformed the economy, introduced market forces, opened up to the West, sent thousands overseas to study and imposed order, sometimes harshly. Over 800 million people were lifted out of poverty. The leadership in Beijing weighs the seven million people in Hong Kong against the 1.4 billion on the mainland and concludes that the greater good means creating prosperity and maintaining social stability. Many Chinese are proud of their country's achievements and believe that the mainland could lose what it gained if it becomes embroiled in Hong Kong’s disorder. For many Hong Kongers below 30 years old, the steady erosion of their values, rights and freedoms and a future living under a different system is a constant fear. The one-country/two-system framework was a stroke of genius, but the future hinges on how it can satisfy the people of Hong Kong and the rest of the country at the same time.

There is little indication at present that the Chinese central government will prevent scholars, scientists or teachers in Hong Kong’s universities from continuing their own research, writings, curriculum or teaching methods. If they do, academic values at Hong Kong's universities will prove resistant to it, but their global rankings will decline. Sources of research funding may influence some research, but that is common to all university systems.

Hong Kong has always been a bounce-back city. There are three reasons why Hong Kong’s universities will recover: the current leadership of the universities has already shown a strong commitment to dialogue with students and a sustained engagement with alumni and the academic community; the laws of Hong Kong ensure that universities will have a high degree of institutional autonomy and academic freedom; and there is a tradition of reaching out to attract talented scientists and scholars from around the world.

Hong Kong’s universities and education system recovered from the riots of 1967 that left 51 dead and hundreds injured, from the depression of the Asian economic crisis of 1998, and from the devastation of the SARS epidemic in 2003 that infected thousands and killed hundreds. If the 1992 Los Angeles riots did not hurt UCLA, USC or Caltech, why should Hong Kong be any different?

Gerard A. Postiglione is chair professor and coordinator, Center of Research on Higher Education in Asia, at the University of Hong Kong.

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