Information Services Office   4.9.2011


Photograph by Nick Kwok
Photograph by Nick Kwok
Newsletter No. 382 > Thus Spake... > Dr. Vincent H.C. Cheng, Chairman of the University Council

Dr. Vincent H.C. Cheng, Chairman of the University Council


Every member of the Chinese University Council is a considerable personage with his or her unique character. How does the chairman coordinate the opinions of such a diverse group?

While the Council is the highest governing body of the University, the soul of the University really resides in the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice-Chancellor  inspires both staff members and students to pursue excellence in their respective fields. The functions of the Council are, first, to determine the direction and objectives for university development in collaboration with the senior management and other colleagues. Second, the Council considers University policies from different perspectives. Third, the Council serves as an interface between the University and society. Fourth, the Council assists the University in garnering support from outside. When the University has reached a consensus on its development objectives, and mapped out the practical steps, then the Council will have to decide how support should be given in the implementation of such policies. The Council has always been unified in its views and decisions, and we have great respect for the Vice-Chancellor and the management: their suggestions have always been reasonable and their planning comprehensive.

What do you see as the most pressing tasks of the Chinese University?

In 2006, the University formulated a strategic plan for the next 10 years, and there was also an interim review which showed that all the projects were proceeding as planned. At present, the developmental priorities are: first, the private teaching hospital; second, the development of the Shenzhen campus; third, the construction of the new Colleges; and to these I may add the preparation for the University’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations. The idea of a university undergoing incessant growth does not appeal to me. A very large institution is difficult to manage. We are after breakthroughs in academic research, and our graduates making contribution to society.

A university with 50,000 students is not necessarily superior to one with 20,000 students. It might be my remembrance of things past, but sometimes I do miss New Asia College in the days when there were only 600 students. A typical class nowadays features a lecturer talking to a few hundred students through the microphone. In our days Dr Tang Jun-i’s class would amount to a little more than a dozen students. 
There was direct interflow between the master and the disciples, and it was a real treat – the only thing was just that it would not be easy to skive.

In your youth, you were a keen observer of what happened in Mainland China. Were you influenced by some particular thoughts or philosophies?

As a youngster I was an avid reader and had already had a good many titles under my belt. Whenever I came across articles in praise of the New China, I would feel proud. After joining CUHK, I came to be much affected by a deep concern for the nation as exemplified in the spirit of New Asia College. An intense interest to know more about China and Communism thus began. It was no small feat to overthrow a feudalistic government, fight against Japanese aggression, and carry on the struggles under extremely harsh conditions, even to the point of giving up one’s life, all for a society that would be free from oppression, corruption and depravity. At that time I also made an attempt to read about Marxism, but I just dwelled on the surface and clung to words and phrases that moved myself. How naïve when one looks back!  We can assume that education is a failure when social justice no longer fascinates our young people, and when they find no value or belief that they are willing to adamantly defend. Of course it is equally understood that, while some people vehemently defend their belief, a distinction has to be made between whether the action involved is compatible with the basic standards of social behaviour, or simply a wilful and reckless act.

The years you were at university were marked by political agitation among students all over the world, and you took part in some of the  activities and campaigns at the time. Now, in retrospect, would your own experience make you more tolerant of young people involved in social activism nowadays?

Yes, it would. Young people only know that where they see injustice, they will put up a fight. Sometimes we went overboard: for example, when we were supporting some blind workers, we accused the factory owner for giving them low wages, without considering the fact that the goods these workers made could not fetch high prices, or that the factory’s capacity for raising the cost of production was limited. We simply felt that we had to serve those in need, and make noise for them. This is very typical of students, to whom justice is black and white. The impact of such thoughts, however, makes for a very precious lesson in one’s life. One who can find his or her true conviction, or has been engaged in the pursuit of such a conviction, is genuinely blessed. 

I do not regret what I did in my youth but, as one who has gone through it, I would like to suggest that, whatever one does, one should not resort to insulting the opponents, or impede one’s opponents from exercising their rights. One should listen more to one’s adversaries, observe them carefully, or examine the issues at hand from the other side. Respect must be paid to those we are against. Abusive language and actions would never bring about the desired effect as your sympathizers will be turned away by them.

Modern education extols leadership skills and emphasizes excellence. Do you agree?

It is a blessing to be ordinary. In this world, ninety per cent of the people live ordinarily. It is of course essential that we nurture leaders, but our community has no need for everyone to be a banking mogul, a Financial Secretary or a Bureau Secretary. There will be quarrels in everything if there are too many leaders.

When I was the supervisor of the Hang Seng School of Commerce, applicants for places there all had rather ordinary grades. My school grades were not impressive, which explains why I took a rather roundabout way to complete my education. It therefore occurred to me that I should do something to help those who did not fare so well in the school certificate examination. Thus I said to the school management: “We don’t really need to produce the biggest number of A’s. It is already value added if they came here with only C’s and D’s but leave with slightly better grades.” Whether one lives as a leader or an ordinary person, it would suffice if one can live happily and decently, and have sufficient means to maintain oneself. As I look back at my career I find that I have always worked hard, but have never felt obliged to be outstanding. An individual must be true to himself or herself, and is entitled to lead a life in his or her chosen way. 

There can be no denying that, in our society, some standards, for example, the possession of a car and an apartment, are enshrined by the majority. The desire for favourable living conditions and affluence is a very normal wish. However, not pursuing material wealth is equally normal. We should leave the decision to the young people themselves. If a student wants to read theology and go to Africa as a missionary, he should be allowed to do so. But the missionary must not despise or insult those desirous of affluence and wealth. It is perfectly alright to seek one’s goal as long as there is mutual respect and that no one causes hindrance or oppression to the others.

What is your advice to young graduates who are entering the working world for the first time?

On the whole, they should seek a balance between professional development and the knowledge of life. There is a difference between going online and pursuing knowledge: the internet enables you to broaden your scope, but it takes nothing less than your own efforts to attain depth. University graduates who want to be useful to society should first build up a sound foundation: academic results will affect your choice in future career development, and learning is a lifelong asset. One’s opportunities are very limited indeed if he or she does not learn to be well-mannered, tolerant of others’ opinions, and rational in discourse.

Have you started planning your retirement?  Where would be your ideal place for retirement?

While I have relinquished most of my responsibilities at HSBC, I have, frankly, not quite rested my labours yet. There are sufficient responsibilities to keep me busy at CUHK alone, but I have also found time to learn new things, such as reading with an iPad, listening to the music of the 1950s on Youtube, and using e-mail more extensively. However, I am still scared of using a touch-screen monitor, for fear of any inadvertent mistake that could wipe out important memories and functions. I am in the Jurassic Age when it comes to office technology, and experiencing the agony and the ecstasy of trying to learn it bit by bit. I wish to stay in touch with society, and do something for both the community and myself. If necessary, I will also spare more time for work at CUHK. At this point I am after a peaceful and quiet life, a life lived happily, without being over-engaged or excessively idle.

Hong Kong is my place of residence. My roots are here, and so are my friends. Living abroad is not the sort of life I cherish. It has to be said that financially I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I can travel anywhere I prefer, but like many other people I came from a poor family. When I was a child there were eight families with over 20 children under one roof. Sometimes some of us had to sleep under the bed, or out in the open, which we children greatly enjoyed as if it were camping. This is what life is, and no one should despair of it.

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