On September 1, 2022, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) opened a new “smart green” campus in Guangzhou, China. Described as “heralding the university of the future” and designed for climate emergencies, this campus represents a significant milestone in HKUST’s strategic vision as it partners with the original HKUST campus located just across the border in Clear Bay, Hong Kong. The idea is for students, faculty members, and researchers to be able to move between the two campuses regularly for classes and research. However, creating what would essentially be a single university that crosses the boundary between what was Hong Kong’s more open society and China’s more closed model raises complex questions about academic freedom and the nature of international collaboration within a university system that spans two different administrative, legislative, and political territories.

HKUST’s complementary campuses initiative plays a crucial role in China’s Greater Bay Area development plan (GBA) and leverages HKUST’s traditional strengths in AI and international partnerships to attract global talent to the region. To achieve this, the two campuses will maintain legal and financial independence, with plans to integrate all other aspects of their research and teaching infrastructure by 2025 under a “unified HKUST-complementary campuses” framework. This integration grants students, staff, and faculty associated with either campus full access to all resources and services at both campuses and ensures all credits will be mutually recognized and transferable. Focused on breaking down academic silos in favor of a holistic and integrated approach to teaching and research, the initiative also aims to build bridges for knowledge transfer and industry partnerships, “paving the way to spur greater social, economic, and technological impact.”

The narrative of HKUST extends beyond its physical expansion and role in the GBA. The original HKUST campus, established in 1991 in Clear Bay, flourished under Hong Kong’s own legal administrative system, and HKUST, like all universities in Hong Kong, long maintained academic freedom as a cornerstone of its identity. Enjoying a high degree of autonomy from mainland China’s governance, the traditionally liberal academic environment, bolstered by Hong Kong’s global connectivity and generous research funding, turned HKUST and other Hong Kong universities into a magnet for international scholars.

In recent years, however, concerns about academic censorship in Hong Kong have grown even as academic research outputs have risen. The aftermath of the 2019 umbrella riots and the subsequent implementation of the National Security Law in 2020 have raised alarms regarding the erosion of the liberal academic model in Hong Kong, and there has been an increasing exodus of faculty in the years since. The 2022-2023 academic year saw the highest number of academic staff and faculty departures since the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997.

In this context, HKUST’s messaging of an open spirit of academic inquiry, free and fluid collaboration, and international knowledge exchange is particularly significant and merits further examination. There is of course little indication of possible tensions or any loss of academic freedom in HKUST’s public communications about the partnership, and under the shadow of the National Security Law and increased government surveillance and control over academic activity, this omission prompts questions about what international collaboration means outside of a liberalism style of academic freedom.[1] How will the integration of these two campuses affect collaboration with international partners? Or, more specifically, which international partners will be affected by this collaboration, especially in potentially sensitive areas like AI and data sharing regulations? It is clear that China’s position as a global center for academic discussions of AI norms and governance is strong; it is uncertain whether this will significantly alter the existing poles of international research and collaboration.

Despite these questions, the new campus received a warm public embrace by many of HKUST’s international partner institutions, including prominent universities in the US, Africa, Canada, Singapore, and Europe. Indeed, the HKUST cross-boundary partnership offers an educational model that appears to hold broad appeal globally. The Clear Bay campus remains conventionally structured by disciplines and schools, while the Guangzhou campus provides a departure from traditional academic disciplines in favor of a “hub based” organization centered around four convergent themes: Information, Society, Systems, and Function. “Research thrusts” such as AI, computational media and arts, data science and analytics, and the internet of things, cut across each hub, leading to a cross-disciplinary model some institutions in the US are also eyeing, and some universities in Singapore and China have already implemented.

As the global academic landscape evolves to address increased climate emergencies, social challenges, and technological change, HKUST’s twin campuses framework stands as a potential exemplar for higher education institutes grappling to find stable footing in our era of rapid transitions. Yet, the possibility that this potential may be buried by international and even Chinese-Hong Kong political antagonisms is equally strong. Amid shifting geopolitical dynamics, the overarching question remains: What does cross-disciplinary education, research, and knowledge transfer look like in a cross-boundary context, rife with political and ideological ambiguities? HKUST’s ability to navigate political sensitivities while balancing the twin campuses and fostering international collaboration will be an important case study in the future of the global research enterprise.

[1] The Chinese University of Hong Kong also has a campus on mainland China, in Shenzhen. HKUST Guangzhou differs from this campus in that it emerged after the National Security Law came into effect, and is designed for synergistic activity rather than as an additional operating campus.