Letter to Lingnanians
23 December 2022
Christmas and New Year are for sharing and wrapping up, so I am writing to let you know about some of the exciting and memorable things that have happened during the months since my last Letter.
Over the past few months, I have attended several international forums and conferences in person and online to share ideas with our overseas partners and peers on key issues regarding higher education. The aim of these meetings was to discuss the modern-day requirements for quality education in general and liberal arts education in particular, and through the meetings to expand our global networks for research collaborations and increase students’ opportunities for experiential learning. Especially notable was the busy month of November. First, our University co-hosted with Times Higher Education (THE) a workshop entitled “Quality Education: the driving force in breaking down barriers to equality” in the THE Global Sustainable Development Congress that was convened by THE and hosted by the University of Glasgow in early November. The workshop featured eminent scholars from the University of Oxford, University College London, Durham University, and the National Chengchi University in Taiwan as well as colleagues from Lingnan and UNESCO. It was well attended on site with subsequent viewing online.
Second, a hybrid roundtable discussion session was hosted by Lingnan at the QS Higher Education Summit (APAC 2022) on 9 November 2022; it was entitled “Liberal arts: Industry 4.0 and Beyond”. The conclusions emerged from the discussions were (a) liberal arts education would fare well in the era of Industry 5.0 and (b) liberal arts will be indispensable to Industry 5.0’s vision of automation and smart manufacturing that is human-centric, resilient and sustainable.
Third, one day after our Congregation that was held on 24 November, I delivered opening remarks at the Annual Presidents’ Forum of the Alliance of Asian Liberal Arts Universities (AALAU), an alliance that was initiated by Lingnan when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the University’s re-establishment in Hong Kong. Given the Forum’s theme “Reimagining Liberal Arts”, I spoke on the needs to reimagine liberal arts education against the background of a) the anti-globalization currents since at least 2008’s global financial crisis; b) trade wars waged by the US against China and other target countries; c) the Covid-19 global pandemic and the resultant worldwide adoption of online education; d) Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its unprecedented multi-dimensional aftermaths; and e) the new economy as captured by the vision of Industry 5.0.
I also made the point that while liberal arts education in Western countries is often tightly associated with the political ideology of liberal democracy, this ideology can indeed be unpacked and off-loaded from liberal arts as approach to whole person education. Citing examples of “liberal arts” institutions in Japan and Saudi Arabia that are respectively based on Buddhist teaching and the holy book Koran, I made the point that this kind of education can be compatible with political systems that differ from liberal democracy. In fact, by embracing the Chinese Boya (博雅) tradition of whole person education that can trace its roots to the Confucian Six Arts (六藝), Lingnan offers yet another example. My message was that Asian liberal arts institutions can tap into their own respective traditions of whole person education to enrich their present offerings, but they would be well advised to make sure that their desire to learn best practices from around the world will not be hampered by narrow minded nationalism.
I would like to share with you that in the address I delivered at the Congregation, I reported that “today Lingnan is widely regarded by its peers from around the world as a leading liberal arts university in Asia known for its quality education and impactful research, plus its caring community engagement.” That was a goal I set for Lingnan when I joined the University in 2013. I am confident that “our new President, Prof. S. Joe Qin, will lead it to greater heights with an even more sterling reputation”.
In that address I also explained how critical thinking can be used to understand the logic of some digital investment products such as Bitcoin and the like. My message was that unless these products have a viable model behind them, they are purely speculative and operate like Ponzi schemes whose eventual collapse would be predictable and even inevitable. I went on to warn our graduates not to fall victim to Ponzi scheme-like frauds that are almost without exception presented as financial bonanzas with mesmerizing messages.
There have been new collapses of digital investment companies and crypto exchanges since the Congregation speech, but nothing has been as shocking as the recent collapse of FTX, the world’s second largest unregulated crypto “exchange”, the arrest of its founder Sam Bankman-Fried, and ongoing investigation of his parents (who are law professors at Stanford University) for their involvement in this gigantic alleged fraud. Will the biggest cryto-exchange Binance be next debacle, as rumors that its founder Changpeng Zhao is also under investigation have been bouncing around, and will that be the beginning of the end of all bubbles that followed the birth of Bitcoin?
The birth of Bitcoin has ushered in unfounded great excitement not only about cryptocurrencies (“currency” is a misnomer here because any currency must be widely used for payments of goods, services and assets but cryptocurrencies are hardly used for this purpose even in the case of Bitcoin) but also the distributed digital book-keeping method called blockchains. The boundless optimism about what wonders blockchains can create has led to so much investment in this software technology that the “doomsday economist” Prof. Nouriel Roubini of New York University (who among other things was one of the few economists credited with predicting the 2008 financial tsunami) has slammed it as “one of the most overhyped technologies ever”. Most recently, the Economics Nobel laureate Prof. Paul Krugman has written about the uselessness of blockchains and given examples of companies that made high profile announcements about their big plans with this technology but later quitted, and some did so quietly. 
Having published four newspaper articles on the Mainland’s zero-Covid policy, I have continued to follow this harsh policy with a keen interest. After being deeply disappointed by the CCP Politburo Standing Committee’s decision to endorse the “20 rules” on the practice of zero-Covid measures on 10th of November, I decided to write articles on the irrationality of that policy when I travelled to the US for a leadership meeting of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (of which Lingnan has been a member since 2012) a few days later. Making use of the time available on long haul flights, time at the airports waiting for plane departures, and time during sleepless nights on both sides of the Pacific caused by jet lags, I completed four articles towards the end of the month and sent them to two local newspapers.
In my article published in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on 5 December, I pointed out that the formulation of rational policy towards the Covid pandemic will require expert analysis by epidemiologists and medical practitioners (of sicknesses, fatality, and medical costs), economists (of impact on the national economy and specific industries), psychologists and social scientists (of people’s right to live their life with freedom and dignity). Sadly, the opinions of epidemiologists seem to have dominated media coverage in the Mainland and, without any relevant expertise, they have shamelessly offered unfounded conclusions on the impact of the harsh policy measures on the national economy and people’s mental suffering, only to justify the outdated zero-Covid policy. My article was on the sad state of affairs in the process of policy formulation, with implications for the national economy and people’s unhappiness. To avoid disastrous economic outcomes with detrimental political repercussions, the outdated policy must be abandoned.
In an companion piece in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on the next day, I shared with the reader two reports on the superiority of an alternative policy (vaccination plus treatment of infected patients) over the hugely costly zero-Covid policy under the dominant Omicron variant and the economic costs of locking down Mainland cities, respectively. The first report, entitled 《生命損失最少化的防疫策略》and authored by Dr. James Jianzhang Liang (梁建章博士) , a Chinese businessman with a PhD in Economics from Stanford University, was first released on the internet in early April, but then quickly it could not be accessed in the Mainland. Despite an non-essential error in his deduction, his conclusion that the alternative policy mentioned above trumps the zero-Covid policy when the new variant has much higher transmittability and much lower fatality than the original virus was unmistakenly correct.
The second report, entitled “The Economic Cost of Locking down like China: Evidence from City-to-City Truck Flows” and co-authored by five economists from universities and research institutes in the Mainland, Hong Kong and the US, shows that the economic costs of harsh lockdown measures were very heavy.
Dr. James Liang is my hero. He has demonstrated his unparalleled courage to speak the truth when doing so at the critical time matters to national welfare. In the above article, I pointed out that he was the first one (along with an academic economist who co-signed an open letter to the Government) to speak up against the one-child policy many years before it was abolished. As for the current situation, after remaining silent for months, he joined five other economists in Mainland in making seven suggestions to the Central government on how to revive the national economy and some key industries on 4 December when the governments appeared to show a willingness to change course in dealing with the pandemic. In my view, he has the best qualities of a traditional Chinese intellectual. On the same day my second article appeared in Hong Kong Economic Journal, my first article in Ming Pao was published. In this piece, after highlighting the essence of the so-called “20 rules” on the implementation of zero-Covid measures as endorsed by the Politburo Standing Committee, I expressed doubt that these new rules on the implementation of zero-Covid measures by local officials alone will make much contribution to the national economy and people’s livelihood (which I called “soft goals”) so long as the local officials continue to face serious disciplinary actions (such as demotion and even dismissal) if infections are not wiped out completely and quickly (which I called “hard constraint”). We can all anticipate what the officials will do to keep their jobs.
The fourth article appeared in Ming Pao on 13 December, almost two weeks after submission, I tried to highlight systematically the superiority of the alternative policy of maximal vaccination combined with focusing medical resources on the treatment of serious sickness (which will imply abandonment of largely wasteful mandatory Nucleic Acid tests and reliance on self-administered Rapid Antigen tests that are much faster and more economical, plus home quarantine for less serious sicknesses to lessen unnecessary pressure on quarantine centres and hospitals), an option that has been proposed by many people but Dr. Liang did so as early as April this year. This article also refuted the well known arguments in favour of the continuation of the zero-Covid policy. You may be surprised to know that some die-hard adherents to the zero-Covid policy have continued to defend it on social media, sometimes resorting to groundless conspiracy theories, even after the various levels of governments had made drastic changes.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that from early December the Mainland governments have been relaxing the zero-Covid controls. The policy reversal was a surprise to me because until the policy was changed, the Mainland government mouthpieces continued to blast daily the message that adhering to the zero-Covid policy was crucial to the welfare of the people. But now, across the border, they are doing things that we have been doing in Hong Kong since the time when our Government decided that a city-wide mandatory Nucleic Acid test was neither possible nor early enough to be useful, but in some cases they have gone even further than us. The Mainland’s relaxation, while unsure at the beginning, has been so fast and so wide ranging that my fourth article (mainly due to the long publication lag and the fast policy reversal) may appear to have been written after the policy reversal.
With all of the policy changes in the Mainland, I believe we have good reasons to expect a return to open borders with both the Mainland and foreign countries and that we shall have a full return to normalcy early next year. With this optimistic prognosis, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a fruitful and happy new year in 2023.
Leonard K Cheng
 In his New York Times article “Blockchains: what are they good for?” (1 December 2022), Krugman noted that two weeks before his writing Australia’s stock exchange quietly cancelled its plan to use blockchain for clearing and setting trades, writing off $168 million in losses, and that the shipping giant Maersk has announced that it was winding down its efforts to use a blockchain to manage supply chains (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/01/opinion/blockchains-what-are-they-good-for.html ).