Is Chinese University of Hong Kong head Rocky Tuan a patriot? Vice-chancellor addresses criticism, vows CUHK will link China and West

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Rocky Tuan Sung-chi was pursuing a college degree in the United States in the 1970s when he was struck by how the students reacted when The Star-Spangled Banner was played at a basketball game.

Watching his fellow students salute in unison to the American national anthem, arms on their chests, left him with tears streaming down his face, he recalled.

“Not because I’ve suddenly developed loyalty to The Star-Spangled Banner, but I sensed this belongingness,” the vice-chancellor of Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) recalled.

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He said growing up under British rule, singing God Save the Queen, the UK anthem, never gave him the same rush of pride. That feeling would only come in 1997, when Tuan watched on US television the British flag lowered in place of Chinese colours as Hong Kong was returned to China.

Former city leader CY Leung has been a strong critic of Tuan. Photo: Nora Tam
Former city leader CY Leung has been a strong critic of Tuan. Photo: Nora Tam

In a recent wide-ranging interview with the Post marking the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of the July 1 return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, Tuan discussed what patriotism meant to him, having bore the brunt of assaults launched by the pro-establishment camp, including former city leader Leung Chun-ying, questioning his loyalty for the country, just as the university extended his tenure by three more years in April.

Tuan has found himself caught in the city’s volatile political climate in recent years, with CUHK becoming the site of one of the most violent episodes between police and protesters in the 2019 social unrest.

The 71-year-old said he felt hurt by allegations, but vowed to soldier on and prove his critics wrong by committing to transform CUHK into a gateway connecting China with the rest of the world.

Among a raft of initiatives in the pipeline is a plan to send students to the mainland for stints with some of the nation’s biggest brands, such as Tencent and Huawei Technologies Co., while forging closer ties with research facilities in the Greater Bay Area, an ambitious plan to integrate Hong Kong, Macau and nine other southern Chinese cities into an innovation powerhouse.

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On controversy surrounding the now-disbanded CUHK student union, Tuan defended management’s decision last year to require the body to register with police, stressing it was based on legalities.

The requirement eventually led to the dissolution of the student union last October, but Tuan said a more representative body was needed and efforts were under way to set up one.

Responding to doubts about his patriotism, Tuan said: “I’m also a human being. I have feelings. I have emotions. Of course, I felt hurt … particularly since a lot of things are not true.”

Last month, former Hong Kong chief executive Leung berated Tuan on Facebook for not being stern enough with his students during the anti-government protests in 2019. Leung’s criticism came after CUHK announced in April its governing council had reappointed Tuan for three years starting from January 1, 2024.

Police fire tear gas while protesters hurl petrol bombs at CUHK during the 2019 unrest. Photo: Sam Tsang
Police fire tear gas while protesters hurl petrol bombs at CUHK during the 2019 unrest. Photo: Sam Tsang

The varsity’s Sha Tin campus became a fierce battleground involving protesters and police, marking one of the most violent streaks in the months-long unrest in 2019, triggered by a now-shelved extradition bill.

Tuan earned the nickname “Daddy Tuan” after he visited a campus site littered with projectiles, bricks and burnt improvised barricades to mediate between police and protesters. He ended up being hit by tear gas when his entourage was leaving for a police station to meet students who had been arrested.

Tuan meets students and protesters at CUHK in November 2019. Photo: Sam Tsang
Tuan meets students and protesters at CUHK in November 2019. Photo: Sam Tsang

“How we handle the extension of Rocky Tuan’s tenure is reflective of how we handle the black violence at CUHK,” wrote Leung on his Facebook page.

Tuan in the Post interview refrained from addressing the allegations point by point, only saying that the university was “in the knowledge business” and not a “political organisation”.

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He said CUHK’s founding mission was to link China with the West and beyond. “Instead of coming up with a response, I think it is more important to go back to our responsibilities,” he argued.

Tuan said CUHK was a pioneer among Hong Kong universities joining the bay area initiative, with a track record dating back to more than a decade ago. “Among all the universities in Hong Kong, we are the very first to really enter the Greater Bay Area before it was even called that,” he said.

Beijing has earmarked Hong Kong to take the lead in developing a health technology hub in the bay area, and CUHK has been paving the way for this.

The Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology (SIAT) of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), which Tuan cited as an example, was jointly established by CAS, the Shenzhen municipal government and CUHK in February 2006, aimed at enhancing the innovative capacity of the equipment-manufacturing and service industries in the Guangdong-Hong Kong region.

“It is a real gem. It is now the most productive and most prestigious of institutes of advanced technologies under the CAS,” Tuan said.

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In 2007, CUHK set up the Shenzhen Research Institute to address education and training needs in the neighbouring city and the region. The institute has since been transformed into an entrepreneurship and innovation hub to facilitate formation of start-ups and foster collaboration between academia and industry.

In 2014, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, a mainland branch of the varsity, was founded and now has more than 8,000 students.

Tuan said the institute had launched a medical and music school last year. The former will be equipped with 3,000 hospital beds and will open in 2025. The music school, according to Tuan, has heavy backing from the Shenzhen government and Professor Xiaogang Ye, a prominent contemporary Chinese composer, appointed as the founding dean of the school.

Tuan, however, said CUHK was not planning to expand into other areas on the mainland and preferred cooperating with other institutions there, conducting joint research and launching joint education programmes.

“We can actually do a lot without having to build campuses, because that’s a lot of money, a lot of planning, a lot of commitment,” he said.

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CUHK last year launched a “Cooperative Education Programme” to arrange for some 100 students to contribute mostly to local firms as regular employees under placements stretching up to eight months, with salaries ranging from HK$10,000 to HK$18,000 monthly.

The programme would be extended to bay area companies next year and ultimately offer every student a chance at a position, Tuan said.

The long list of employers covers a wide range of sectors, such as the Bank of China, Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks and Hong Kong police. This will be expanded to mainland tech giants such as Tencent, Huawei and Alibaba, which owns the Post.

Tuan said he viewed the immersion programme as a way for students to know more about the bay area. “It reminds me of a saying by Benjamin Franklin: tell me and I’ll forget, teach me, I may remember, involve me, and I will learn. So I think that’s the best way to have our students really know what the bay area is about.”

He added that such initiatives gave him confidence in CUHK doing well in a new key performance index linked to the bay area and set up by the University Grants Committee earlier this year. The committee is a non-statutory advisory body that the Hong Kong government consults on financing and expansion needs of its subsidised tertiary institutions.

Asked if deeper integration with the mainland would cause CUHK to lose its international edge, Tuan said the university needed to move forward with the times and was already well-connected.

“If you don’t do anything, yes, your edge will be gone … But if we keep exercising that edge, we keep opening doors, opening pathways, then that edge will be there at all times.”

Locally, CUHK also received a donation of HK$150 million (US$19.1 million) in June from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, for research and development in biomedical technology.

The fund will be used to invest in a three-part project on nearby land given to the university by the government, comprising: a research centre specialising in, among other fields, regenerative medicine, neuroscience, and immunotherapy; a facility for cells manufacturing and teaching of ethics; and a hospital focusing on clinical aspects.

Tuan said one targeted area was research on rare diseases that had not been given sufficient attention. “The government actually pays a lot of money for supporting such treatment … But no one is doing the research.”

University in Hong Kong cuts ties with student union for bringing school into ‘disrepute’

On the political front, Tuan has been walking a tightrope in the past year, sandwiched between criticism from the pro-establishment camp and his students.

In November 2020, he was panned for calling in police when students protested on campus and chanted separatist slogans, just less than five months after the Beijing-imposed national security law came into force. The legislation forbids acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

Tuan said he had often and always tried to maintain good communication with students to tell them what was right and wrong, and not to “mix things up”.

In February 2021, CUHK management imposed restrictions on its then student union, including suspending executive members from ex officio positions on all university committees, and notifying the group it would have to assume legal responsibility for itself by registering as an independent society or company. The university had cut ties with the student union, citing possible security law breaches.

After eight months, the union said it had formally disbanded, adding it had sought legal advice on the university’s decisions and was told it “did not need to be registered independently”.

Tuan said the call for the student group to register came from the government, revealing that a new body would be set up.

“If you’ve got to have a student union, you need to include everyone – mainland students, international students, postgraduate students. So as to make it a really representative organisation. So we’re working on that now … The previous student union consisted only of local undergraduates, therefore 40 per cent of the student population was excluded,” he said.

Looking ahead, Tuan conceded being at the helm of the university would be a tougher task, not just because of the political landscape but also the Covid-19 pandemic, which had affected overseas enrolment. “The pandemic actually shook things up a lot. So we have to reinvent ourselves.”

On his love for CUHK, he said of the campus: “It’s not perfect, but it has so much character, and a spirit that is very unusual.”

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