Retrospective on 2020, a personal view of a turbulent year.
A year ago I was sitting in London for Christmas, it had been about a month since the protests in Hong Kong had hit the university campuses. This event had been much less serious at HKU than many of the other university campuses in Hong Kong, and I along with some colleagues perhaps played a role in it being less serious. Nevertheless it took me several months to be relaxed near groups of people wearing dark clothing, or to stop getting very anxious when I saw police vans. Returning to Hong Kong things seemed peaceful but tensions still simmered beneath the surface. As soon as term started the protestors reappeared and it felt like we were going to head straight back to the situation that we had in the autumn. On the very first day of term protestors erected an ‘exhibition’ in Sun Yat Sen Square, graffiti appeared and the Lennon Wall was rebuilt (it had been destroyed on Christmas Day presumably by students or others with pro-Beijing views). So 2020 started much as 2019 had ended with the threat of renewed violence both on and off campus. But things were about to change abruptly.
In early January I wrote in in the Faculty Newsletter ‘I hope that the outbreak of this new disease in Wuhan is not going to disrupt our lives too much’, my hope would not be realised. I was actively tracking the early stages of what became the covid-19 pandemic in the first few days of January. Mid January saw a short trip to the beautiful Philippine island of Palawan hosted by the China Exploration Research Society, unfortunately this seems to be where I caught a bacterial infection in my right leg that would take several months to build up before landing me in hospital in April. My health concern early in the year was actually my left leg that had failed to recover from surgery on my knee in November and the resulting oedema (from fluid leaking out of my knee joint) lasted until February. Chinese New Year was early in 2020, and HKU had just a single week of teaching before the holiday. This, as it turned out, would be the only week of full face-to-face teaching in the semester. Through January the covid-19 epidemic raged in China and soon arrived in other countries around the world, including Hong Kong. We decided to extend the CNY holiday to allow the staff to prepare and then took all teaching online, which was to be how we ended up teaching that entire semester.
Adeline and I managed a short trip to see her father in Malaysia in mid March, which was to be the last time we would leave Hong Kong in 2020. We were lucky to get back as our trip coincided with the first major outbreak of Covid-19 in Malaysia and two days later flights were stopped in and out of Malaysia.
Just before Easter I was hospitalised with a massively swollen right leg due to the infection picked up in Palawan three months previously. I was in and out of hospital for three weeks and dosed several times a day with massive quantities of antibiotics that finally managed to get the infection under control. I was extremely well looked after mainly because the staff are very professional, but the Head of Medicine coming down to check on me at least once a day also probably helped (an advantage of being a Dean on first name terms with the Dean of Medicine). I was finally signed off at the end of June, but I still have some oedema round my ankle today.
The second half of the second semester was characterised by a series of debates about how we would deliver the components of the curriculum that had to be done face-to-face, the basically amounted to practical and experiential teaching. We were under significant pressure to cancel everything but I refused to do so, and we eventually got permission to mount face-to-face practical classes with social distancing and enhanced hygiene measures. All of this allowed us to graduate the class of 2020 on time, such a normal occurrence being a major achievement.
Adeline and I were planning to go to London in July, Adeline had to go as she needed to get a working visa for China. I had no truly compelling reason to go though and so I cancelled my trip. As it turns out the Chinese embassy refused to issue Adeline’s visa as she needed a new letter of permission from the province, which she didn’t know was required and so did not have! This rendered her trip largely pointless.
The beginning of July saw the imposition by Beijing of the National Security Law in Hong Kong. This was aimed at killing off the protest movement and any talk of secession or democracy, but it caused a lot of anxiety in the city generally and the universities in particular. It remains unclear what will be the impact on academic freedom, what is clear is that everyone is self-censoring to avoid any risks of falling foul of the law. Just before it was enacted I was called into the Liaison Office for a tea and a grilling about the law.
August was a major turning point because the President decided that he did not want to renew my term as Dean. To be honest this came as a shock but not a surprise. A shock because I had thought that I had been doing a good job, the Faculty’s performance was steadily improving, and frankly the role that I had played in the last year I thought would have given me a second term. But it was not a surprise because my face no longer fits in this role at HKU, the University is rapidly sinicizing.
It was clear that the academic year 2020/21 would not be that different from the previous one and would feature significant amounts of online education. Therefore, over the summer we invested in the equipment to create better online courses and employed a new member of the Faculty office team dedicated to assisting our staff with creating and delivering online content. We now regularly use our own green room, scrolling teleprompters and animations.
Every five years each Faculty is reviewed, for us this should have taken place in February but it was cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead we had a remote review in September and October, as the review team was mainly located in east coast USA this meant many late night meetings in Hong Kong. The review was a strange experience, partly because of the mode of operation which limited the usual free exchange of views, but mainly because the panel had some very strong views right from the start. It seemed that it had been primed to generate certain conclusions.
In August I had been told that my departure as Dean would be announced in September, but that month came and went. I was then informed that it would happen after National Day, which also passed. Finally the announcement came in November, and the search is on for my replacement.
Finally now in December, after much soul searching we decided to come to the UK. Adeline needed to make an another attempt to get her visa, her new employers are getting impatient at not having their staff on site. So she came over first and successfully got a working visa. I left Hong Kong on 18th December, the day after I arrived in the UK the discovery of a new more virulent strain of covid was announced. Hong Kong promptly banned all arrivals from the UK. And so at the year’s end we are stranded in London (there are worse places) as the pandemic rages here, unable to return to our places of work. And so 2021 starts with hope but also with dislocation.