CUHK’s ground receiving station, once jointly operated with the US Geological Survey, is said to be the most advanced of its kind in Asia. Photo: Handout

Hong Kong’s academia is bearing much of the collateral damage after Washington severed its once-amicable ties with the territory.

Banks and brokers in the Asian financial hub who had girded for an immediate impact may be reassured that US President Donald Trump’s signing of yet another bipartisan act concerning Hong Kong has so far failed to roil the local market.

The city’s financial sector has emerged largely unscathed, at least for now, but a reputable tertiary education institution in the city that has had extensive exchanges with the US has found itself caught in the crossfire as the feud between Washington and Beijing intensifies.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) got a special mention in the executive order on Hong Kong Normalization that Trump signed on Tuesday:

“Within 15 days of the signing of the order, the heads of agencies shall commence all appropriate actions to further the purposes of this order to suspend continued cooperation undertaken consistent with the now-expired Protocol Between the US Geological Survey of the Department of the Interior and Institute of Space and Earth Information Science of the Chinese University of Hong Kong concerning scientific and technical cooperation in earth sciences.” 

CUHK is so far the only local university appearing on the radar when Washington takes stock of the bilateral research programs that must be put off. The “namecheck” in the presidential executive order has also shed light on CUHK’s wide-ranging research and academic exchanges with the US, in particular the previously little-known earth science project.

The suspension of the partnership between the US Geological Survey and CUHK has raised questions about how significant the project is and why a presidential order would target it.

Washington is in the process of revoking its suite of export and other privileges for Hong Kong, stressing that it aims to hamper Beijing’s efforts to trample on the former British territory. The move to pare back Hong Kong’s special status is triggered by Beijing’s much-deplored move to foist a controversial national security law on the city. The Trump administration has contended that Hong Kong’s diminishing autonomy is making the transfer of sensitive technologies and know-how more likely to end up in Beijing’s hands and thus the US must suspend related exports and exchanges to safeguard its interests.

But contrary to the expectation that a long roll-call of bilateral programs would be halted, only CUHK’s earth science and sensing project has been singled out.

It is understood that the project between CUHK and the US Geological Survey was established in October 2005 when both parties partnered to operate an earth sensing and ground receiving center for land surveying and data crunching and analyzing programs. Other than Hong Kong itself, the data from the center also covered large swaths of mainland China as well as a vast expanse of the South China Sea.

CUHK noted in its academic research report of 2019 that the geosensing center – with its main parabolic antenna housed inside a giant white spheroidal shell nestling on a hilltop, an easily recognizable landmark on the campus – was the largest and most advanced of its kind across Asia. It can capture signals beamed from satellites and monitor virtually everything and any changes on Earth’s surface within a 2,500-kilometer radius, from Bangladesh to the western Pacific and from Beijing to Brunei.

The area covered by the geosensing center. Photo: Handout

Up-to-date data and image feeds from the center relating to meteorology, oceanography, geology and disaster prevention are shared with governments and private entities across Asia and in the US.

Replying to media inquiries, CUHK noted on Thursday that its partnership with the US for the joint operation of the ground receiving station had already ended in November 2019. Instead, the facilities now form the Hong Kong base of China’s National Earth Sensing Center, which itself is under the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.

The concern among members of the local academia is that their research may be entangled in politics and the simmering row between Washington and Beijing, and that their exchanges with their peers in America may be hamstrung as US government agencies implement Trump’s executive order.

A CUHK PhD research fellow in earth science who hails from mainland China told Asia Times on condition of anonymity that he could not understand the rationale for the US pulling out of the geo-data network.

“In the past the US Geological Survey could get data from CUHK’s ground receiving station and all the latest remote sensing information about mainland China and the South China Sea, so why pulling out from the network of a key observation base that is on the verge of China?” he asked.

“With these data and images, you can either see if there is a bush fire or sand storm in the wilderness of China’s far west but you can also track the construction of a key military base.”

He said some of the geosensing data processed at CUHK and shared with the US and other partners could reveal details of the installations and deployment of military forces in the region but he did not know if the Chinese military was aware of this. He said he would not be surprised if Beijing made moves to take over the center, now that the US has opted out.

Data and images from the center may reveal sensitive information about the military forces in the region. Photo: Handout

Professor Wong Kam-fai, a deputy dean of CUHK’s Faculty of Engineering, refused to comment on the military significance of the geosensing center. But he said the center would never go off air even without the US, and that the real impact of Washington’s export ban and suspension of bilateral programs would depend on the actual implementation, adding that even without the latest restrictions, procuring sensitive technologies from the US had never been easy.

“The US is stopping the export of military and dual-use technologies to Hong Kong but the fact is that local institutes seldom conduct researches related to defense or military… Now we can expect a longer turnaround from the US government when it scrutinizes our future collaborations with American partners,” said Wong.

Meanwhile, Professor Chan Chi-hou, with the City University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory of Terahertz and Millimeter Waves, also told reporters that it would be hard to find alternatives if the US banned all experts of sensitive equipment to Hong Kong. But he said that unless the US could publish an exhaustive list of items covered by the ban, there would always be workarounds to swap devices and technologies with American partners, since more often than not the boundary between military and civil uses could be blurred in interdisciplinary studies.

Meanwhile, Washington is also taking steps to terminate the Fulbright exchange program with China and Hong Kong, halting future exchanges between Hong Kong and American academics that are funded by the US government. CUHK used to be a major beneficiary of the program, which pools 53 Nobel laureates and 80 Pulitzer Prize winners.