In its early days, Chinese University was a haven for scholars who had fled the Communist regime on the mainland. One of its constituent colleges, New Asia College, for example, was founded by acclaimed Confucianism experts Chien Mu and Tang Junyi, who moved to Hong Kong after 1949.
The university has remained a popular base for China research by scholars from around the world. Its library, and the Universities Services Centre for China studies (established in 1963), hold an extensive collection of ancient and modern Chinese scholarship.
Now the university is raising its profile as a place which teaches about, as well as researches, the country. Its newly founded Centre for China Studies offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, and is aimed at international students.
Kok Nam Deok, from South Korea, is a first year student in the centre’s contemporary China studies (social science stream) programme.
Having learned Chinese in high school, he knows his dream of becoming a diplomat hinges on his understanding of Chinese culture.
Chinese University ‘s proximity to Shenzhen is an attraction for him; so is the chance of mingling with mainland and Hong Kong students. “We share rooms with local students in the dormitories, and inevitably we learn about their culture and what to expect from them,” he says.
Japanese student Mau Togawa, another first-year student, moved to Hong Kong to join her parents following the earthquake in Japan in 2011. After finishing a Putonghua course at the university, she enrolled in the programme to fill her gaps in knowledge about China-Japan relations.
“When I was studying international relations at university in Japan, the information I found about China was very limited. I wanted more perspectives. If I stayed in Japan, I would only get the Japanese point of view,” she says.
There are only a handful of Japanese students at Chinese University, but Togawa says Japanese youths would value the chance to learn more about Chinese culture, economics and politics here. “My ideas about, and understanding of, the country changed a lot after attending.”
Other foreign students chose this city over the mainland because of the free flow of information here, and were attracted by Hong Kong’s reputation for being an international crossroads. When Annemarelle Van Schayik was growing up in the Netherlands, she became intrigued after her mother, who often went on business trips to China, told of her experiences.
When she was 18, she took a gap year to Beijing to study the language and has since remained in Asia.
Although her parents had advised her to remain in China, she took an undergraduate degree in China studies at Chinese University, and is now in the last year of her MPhil study. Political censorship on the mainland is one reason for her choice. “I think we need to see things from different perspectives in studying China culture, traditions, and so on,” Van Schayik says.
Undertaking a similar major in Europe did not appeal to her, either. “In Europe, you could never get any experience; you could not get a real feeling about what Chinese culture is like. It’s really difficult to take that abstract learning and put it into practice,” she says.
About 90 per cent of the centre’s undergraduates are from outside Hong Kong, and three are from the mainland. Professor Jan Kiely, the centre’s associate director, previously ran a Johns Hopkins University programme in Nanking. Kiely expects the first-year intake to rise from 50 to 80 in time.
Last year, China study majors were educated in different departments, but with the founding of the centre last year (it replaced the Centre for East Asian Studies), scholars have been roped in from around the world to deliver China-specialised courses under one roof.
“We are an interdisciplinary department. We have our own faculty that is developing,” says Kiely. “We will have one major expert in each of the major fields. We have historians and we also have political scientists and anthropologists. And we are hiring sociologists. The idea is to have our own faculty that provides introductory courses with international perspectives.”
He believes Hong Kong is well positioned to be a leading centre of study on China.
“There are ways in which Hong Kong produces a special environment that encourages creativity, innovation and a history of a free environment for thinking about China; we don’t have many of the pressures that may be experienced in China. Not that there aren’t good programmes on the mainland,” Kiely says.
As part of their study, all undergraduates enrolled in the centre must study Chinese language at the start of the course. They later spend one semester in Taiwan or on the mainland.
Kiely says other local universities are positioning themselves to offer China-related programmes. “For scholars, the richness of China is endlessly fascinating. Whether it’s number one in the Group of 20 or not does not matter.”
Since 2006, Chinese University has designated Chinese studies as one of its five focused areas of research. Vice-chancellor Joseph J.Y. Sung, says it’s the university’s responsibility to not only research Chinese studies, but also to bring up a new generation of students who will be able to understand China in global terms.
“We aspire to be a premier international centre of Chinese studies, and to develop Chinese studies into a flagship programme of our university,” he says.
To spread the word, the centre has increased recruitment drives abroad to explain to students and parents why they should come to Hong Kong to study.
“Over the past 10 years, it’s become well known that China is important. But not many people think of Hong Kong as the place to go to study [Chinese culture].
“People think about studying business, and studying China in Oxford or North America. But those programmes are not offered in a Chinese city next to China, in a university filled with people who are from China.
“Even the most famous university in the world cannot compare with the number, the range of studies about China, and the resources available here,” Kiely says.( South China Morning Post)