Research work with real-world impact

In his role as President of Lingnan University since 2013, Professor Leonard Cheng has had good reason to take pride in the range and quality of research work undertaken by faculty members and postgraduate students.

The regular flow of peer-reviewed papers in prestigious academic journals has continued to enhance the university’s international standing and, in certain cases, also influence key policy decisions and bring tangible benefits for the wider community.

Significantly, these research achievements saw seven current and former Lingnan scholars listed among the world’s top 2 per cent of most-cited scientists in 2020, according to a report by Stanford University. And, as a way of ensuring relevance, direction and impact, many of the projects and initiatives are now being linked quite deliberately to one or more of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

That is an approach Professor Cheng wholeheartedly supports, not least because his own research work over the years, in the fields of economics, especially in the field of international trade and investment, has sought to address questions which have practical implications and set out theories which can inspire positive change.

“I have engaged in both theoretical and empirical research, which has evolved with changes in the real-world economies,” he says, noting though that, since 2007, his full-time administrative duties have often made it advisable to engage collaborators to help push various projects forward. “Most of my past projects were motivated by my interest in and the importance of the topics. However, the actual impact of my research publications, as determined by citation counts and other evidence, would only be known much later, perhaps decades later. As it has turned out, my empirical papers tended to be cited more widely than my theoretical pieces.”

At different points, his work has focused on foreign direct investment (FDI) in China, the mainland’s outward FDI, and technological innovation and imitation. It has also examined currency boards – for example Hong Kong’s so-called “linked exchange rate” system – and related currency crises, as well as applied game theory with reference to industrial organisations.

More recently however, attention has turned to issues resulting from China’s increasing economic power and shifting ambitions. For instance, Professor Cheng’s much-cited article discussing “Three Questions on China’s Belt and Road Initiative”, which was published in 2016 in the China Economic Review, arose from organising a conference in Beijing the previous year on the nation’s fast-increasing role in the world economy.

Another, co-written with Gregory W. Whitten and Jingbo Hua, appeared in the Journal of Chinese Economics and Business Studies in 2019, and tackled the always sensitive subject of using the national security argument for the protection of domestic industries. The Sino-US trade war is an important part of the article.

“I liked the topic and believed that research on national security as a protectionist argument – a seriously under-researched area in international economics – was important at a time when President Donald Trump continued to blatantly abuse the argument to justify aggressive US trade policy towards virtually all other countries,” Professor Cheng says. “My co-authors collected information on how such cases have been dealt with by the WTO and its predecessor, GATT. They also looked into the literature, going back to when Adam Smith regarded national defence as an exception to the free trade principle he advocated.”

And just last year, a groundbreaking paper for the International Journal of Educational Development, co-written with Xiaodong Wei, explored the concept of boya education in China, which has its roots in the country’s ancient concept of whole-person education, and lessons to be taken from liberal arts education in the United States and Hong Kong.

“Ideally, the impact of any research should go beyond publication in top-tier journals and citations by other scholars,” says Professor Cheng, recalling the satisfaction he gained from work which, along the way, has studied aspects of Chinese philosophical thought on learning and thinking, critical thinking in Hong Kong’s secondary and undergraduate curriculum, Sino-US trade imbalances, and speculative attacks on Hong Kong’s linked exchange rate system.

“In some cases, a focus on practical, yet important, local issues can be very worthwhile, especially for established scholars who no longer have to worry about job security.”