Interviewed by: K, 白板

Written by: 白板

Translated by: Fantasy, Whiteboard

About the interviewee…

King Ming Jean Hung, the program director of “Folk History(民間故事)” of the Universities Service Centre for China Studies (USC) of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.  She served as Associate Director of the USC from 1988 to 2007.

Jan Kiely, Division Head of China Studies. During 1982 to 1983, he studied at Chengdu No.7 High School in China. He has lived in China for nearly ten years till now.

Academic background: 1988 BA East Asian Studies, Yale University. 1993, MA History (East Asia), the University of Hawaii at Manoa. 2001, PhD History (East Asia/China), University of California at Berkeley.

In December 2020,  CUHK announced a ‘restructuring’ of The Universities Service Centre for China Studies (USC) and confirmed that USC will cease to exist after reorganization. USC Collection will be kept as a named collection in the University Library and will be digitized by the University Library. CUHK has been known as a base for studying China and one used to hear it called a Mecca for China studies, but perhaps no longer. The reorganization of this special collection has raised concerns among the public: is it a symbol of the decline of academic freedom in Hong Kong? Compared to the image portrayed in the media coverage and academic discussions, our campus is quieter. In these circumstances, we interviewed Ms. Hung King Ming Jean,  the soul of the Centre and Jan Kiely, Division Head of China Studies and former Associate Director of USC to talk about USC in this era. There are two questions in my mind: First, why do we need to study contemporary China? What is the significance of the research? Second, in today’s Hong Kong society, how does an institution like USC manage the tension between politics and academics?

Significance of USC and China Studies 

Ms Hung King Ming Jean, when CUSP asked about the significance and mission of USC,  picked up a brochure introducing the Centre and reacted on the words of the academic dignitary Ezra F. Vogel:

‘In 1963 none of us articulated a clear vision of how we hoped the USC might develop over the next four decades. If we had articulated a vision, I believe it would have been something like this: We hoped that scholars here at USC might develop a deep understanding of what was happening in China, that we could pass on our understanding to students around the world, and the field of contemporary Chinese studies would flourish. We hoped that China might begin to open up and that our research might enable us to be a bridge as China began to join the world community. We hoped that someday we would be able to work together with Chinese scholars in enhancing mutual understanding. We hoped we might enjoy the process by which all this happened. Now 40 years later, it has all come to pass. With a total expenditure, over 40 years, of a few million dollars, with lots of effort, we have, as mainland officials put it, “fulfilled our historical mission.” A toast to the Universities Service Centre and all of us, past, present, and future, who are privileged to be part of it.’

Ms Hung paused and added: ‘To put it bluntly, the centre was established in Hong Kong in 1963 for the simple reason that mainland China was closed to the world at that time and if you want to study this closed place, you have to go to the nearest place, which is Hong Kong. Hong Kong has two very favourable resources. First, in Hong Kong, there were a lot of newspapers and magazines from the mainland. Second, there was an institution called the Union Research Institute in Hong Kong. They had been collecting local newspapers and magazines, making them into clipping files and sorting them out. Some coordinated resources are right there (Union Research Institute).

For Ms Hung, there is another important reason to study China—to take history as a mirror and reflect on the past. Here, Ms Hung told us she wrote the introduction for the book “Cultural Revolution: Recollections, Reconstructions, and Reflections,”“For the study of The Cultural Revolution, we have compiled the database of the Cultural Revolution In Hong Kong. The database now has about 100 million characters, and is already a very complete database with all kinds of data. In 2016, the 60th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, we held a seminar. Before the seminar, we planned to invite all these people to compile a book, and the most important purpose of compiling the book is to let the young generation know what the Cultural Revolution was about, instead of as Xi Jinping said all day long, which is so-called “taking history as a mirror.” As Ms Hung said in the introduction of the book, “Countries and nations tend to bury their dishonourable history. Without revealing the truth and summarizing the lessons of history, the tragedy may be repeated.” The ‘soul’ of the centre has always operated USC with the attitude of “revealing the truth, recording the truth.”

This is apparently because Ms Hung herself lived through the Cultural Revolution. As she said, ​​”afterwards I discovered a problem that I didn’t realize until much later. For example, my father’s generation has a very strong sense of national patriotism. Although they have been criticized(pīdòu 批鬥), this feeling has never wavered. But when it comes to me, I begin to waver. I didn’t feel that until I was old. At that time, I always thought that my daughter would go to the United States to study. What if she gets married there and doesn’t come back? So, I told her to let go of the baggage of being a citizen of the world and to recognize universal values, but she told me later that she envied Americans. “I’m not from the Mainland. I’m not from Hong Kong. I’m not from the United States–where am I from? It’s important to have roots.”

Unlike Ms Hung, Professor Jan Kiely studies China more because of curiosity and interest as a scholar than patriotism. “My family had a European background. My father was in the U.S. Navy, and he knew John Fairbank, so we were on good terms with China. I still remember when my father sent me a picture and said, ‘This is Hong Kong, and looking over here, China is on the other side.’ At that time, we couldn’t go to mainland China until relations between the United States and China thawed again. At that time, China was still very poor, and we were the only American family in Chengdu, which led me to develop a strong interest in China and to pursue the academic path of China studies. “There is so much we still have to learn about China, and history itself is making sense of the past.”

Speaking of academics, Professor Jan Kiely cannot help criticizing the current university system: “Although the knowledge I pursue is deemed as ‘practical’ in the current society, this ‘unpractical’ knowledge is very important to improve the society. Nowadays, the university’s problem lies in its eagerness to achieve results. It is very dangerous to conclude without a deep understanding of things. Almost every field of knowledge requires serious research. Hong Kong has a very international academic community. Hong Kong people should be proud of this. This huge academic community has different research priorities. But [Chinese University] is good at China studies and has many opportunities to enter China. The scope of global research in China also includes Taiwan and Hong Kong, and these studies. As China gets richer, they will become more and more important. Today’s discussions on globalization cannot be separated from China. We are in the place where China can be most observed. Of course, we must seize these opportunities. Although with China’s opening up, Hong Kong Research on China’s status is no longer as significant as before, we are still No.1 in the world in this regard. You can hardly believe No.1 will surge down so suddenly even the situation is changing.”

Both Ms Hung and Professor Jan Kiely have their motives. One is to remember history and the other is to pursue knowledge. As I am writing this article, I could not help to wonder, why should we be interested in China studies? I think it is probably because of the huge existence of China, and his existence does remind us in Hong Kong all the time, China is like telling Hong Kong people, “you have me by your side.” We have to understand why this existence exudes such a sense of oppression, and why so many people have illusions about it.

Politics and Academia

We always separated politics from academics and said, “let politics belong to politics, academics belong to academics.” However, in today’s intensified political situation, the boundary between politics and academics has also blurred. How should we deal with the relationship between politics and academics?

Ms. Hung, once again, told the story of the centre to answer this question, “closing the centre has already caused a lot of speculation. The reporters of Initium Media spent three months trying to find out why the centre was closed and whether there was any political reason behind the decision, yet they cannot find the reason behind either. I know nothing until now, and also no one knows actually.”

Professor Jan Kiely told us, “politics and academics can never be separated, even in the so-called free world. This is not a problem that only occurs in China, but the whole world is like this. Writing an article or doing research on yourself already has a potential political consequence. But no matter what the relationship between politics and academics is, the academic world needs academic freedom. Without academic freedom, we cannot study our way out of society, and it is not a good university. The political environment is different in each place, so scholars also need to face political tension in different ways. As for the centre, although I don’t know what happened in detail, I won’t comment on whether they (the university executives) should handle these things more systematically or not. However, public discussion is not helpful at this stage. Some comments in society tell that there is secret knowledge, which makes me feel ridiculous. The collection of the entire universities service centre will not disappear, not only will it not disappear, but it is still under construction, and everyone is encouraged to continue research, and this spirit is the most important. In China studies, the centre is just small pieces of the story, not the only one. Some speculations outside are caused by the lack of understanding of this academic community.”

Ms. Hung remembered the accusation that the centre was funded by the CIA: “There have been people saying that the centre is related to the United States. There is even an article listing the centre’s financial reports from 1963 to 1986. Prove that the centre has nothing to do with the states. The centre has been running around for funding for a long time, and it didn’t have this problem after I came to CUHK. Of course, now the centre is going to be closed, you can guess, you can guess whether it’s because of some pressure, or whether it’s because of the National Security Law. But all inferences need to be well-founded. At that time, when the university was about to reorganize the centre, I also said that doing so would cause a lot of speculation. The timing of closing the centre was not appropriate. People would worry about it because of the National Security Law, but the university thought it was an administrative decision, they think it is better in terms of research efficiency, and the decision is sensitive no matter when it is made, and it is also sensitive if you make it a few years later.”

When it comes to the future of the centre, Ms Hung gave a wry smile, “to be honest, these are no longer my considerations anymore as I have retired for many years. If you ask me what my own considerations are, I will tell you that I still could work on the folk history of China. I think we should continue to encourage people to write down the stories of their elders, then they will live forever in the world, and it is much more meaningful than their ashes. As for politics and academics, I think sometimes there are things beyond our control. Scholars are powerless. Look at the mainland. Many things in the mainland can’t be published now.”

Conclusion: Universities Service Centre and CUHK

Ms. Hung hopes to cultivate the curiosity of undergraduates: “We don’t expect every student to have curiosity, but if you are a little bit curious about what is going on in China it would be incredible. In Hong Kong, a lot of parents come from the mainland, so what kind of things have they experienced? Our Mom and Dad may not have written memoirs, but we can at least learn something from those people who wrote about their time. We could still imagine their childhood stories. After all, these stories shaped them.” Professor Jan Kiely felt unpredictable: “You never know what will happen next. A great university must have academic freedom. We can be here, work, teach here and organize academic conferences. We are not working on political revolution activities. The academic things should not be restricted. We should have rational and serious discussions in our society, and CUHK students must pay attention to this and be curious about this.”

For the undergraduate, the Universities Service Centre seems to be a place that only historians or graduate students would go. But in fact, the Universities Service Centre is never an exclusive place. This place allows us to understand China, which is both far away and quite close to us. The relationship between Hong Kong and China is inextricably linked. No matter how the world changes, handling the relationship with China is still an important and urgent matter for Hong Kong people in different eras to consider. If this is the case, knowing a little more about Chinese society is actually equipping ourselves. We should understand China. Only in this way can we properly handle our relationship with China and make accurate judgments about the current situation.


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