Two City-States in the Long Shadow of China: The Future of Universities in Hong Kong and Singapore by Bryan Penprase and John Aubrey Douglass CSHE 10.21 (September 2021)


Hong Kong and Singapore are island city-states that exude the complicated tensions of postcolonial nationalism. Both are influenced directly or indirectly by the long shadow of China’s rising nationalism and geopolitical power and, in the case of Hong Kong, subject to Beijing’s edicts under the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Both have productive economies dependent on global trade, and each has similar rates of population density--Hong Kong’s population is 7.4 million and Singapore is home to 5.8 million people.  It remains to be seen whether Hong Kong’s peripheral nationalist identity will be retained, or whether the increasingly assertive influence and control by mainland China will prevail and fully assimilate Hong Kong. But it is apparent that Hong Kong is at a turning point. Throughout 2019, protesters filled the streets of the city, worried about declining civil liberties, specifically Beijing’s refusal to provide universal suffrage as promised previously in law and the disqualification of prodemocracy candidates, along with the growing control of Hong Kong’s government and universities by Chinese central government designates and fears of an ever-expanding crackdown on dissent. Singapore provides a less dramatic but relevant example of the tension caused by the influx of foreign national students and academics who often displace native citizens, combined with government-enforced efforts to control dissent in universities. And like Hong Kong, the long shadow of China influences the role universities are allowed to play in civil society. The following is an excerpt from book Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press) that explores the implications of nationalist movements on universities in Hong Kong and Singapore. In both, university leaders, and their academic communities, value academic freedom and the idea of independent scholarship. Yet the political environment is severe enough, and the opportunity costs great enough, that they, thus far, remain generally neutral institutions in a debate over civil liberties and the future of their island states. The exception is the key role students have played in the protest movement in Hong Kong, but for how long?

Bryan Penprase
Publication date: 
September 22, 2021
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)