This Little Tiger Goes To School

Hong Kong entrepreneurs love their Remy Martin XO cognac, gold Rolex watches, and Mercedes 600s. But when it comes to spending on research and development, they are notorious tightwads. Then what must a local manufacturer think when he first sets foot inside the lavish Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, which opened its doors to its first freshman class in September?

The whole place seems designed to make a statement: Hong Kong's miserly attitude toward R&D is about to change. For starters, I marvel at the massive, snow-white main academic building designed by Hong Kong architect Simon Kwan. The courtyard, inspired by Venice's Piazza San Marco, is the size of a football field. All the facilities, from the clean room for semiconductor research to dormitory digs wired with data lines, are first-rate. Students and staff, gushes a brochure, can even "enjoy the sparkling waters" of a 50-meter pool with enclosed sun deck that "will offer bathers a spot for a drink or snack in a resort-like setting." Bali H'ai indeed: From atop a 450-foot cliff, the campus gazes over a tranquil seascape of islands and lush green mountains.

But the Suntan U. image is deceptive. Consider the impressive roster of professors. Some 80% were recruited from such big-name American schools as Johns Hopkins, the University of California at Berkeley, and Princeton. Most, such as Vice-Chancellor Woo Chia-Wei, are Chinese-Americans lured by the challenge of bringing advanced science to Asia. Woo's goal is nothing less than to build the MIT of the Orient. Pacing before the stunning view through picture windows in his office, Woo says: "If you are going to have a technology university, it has to be world-class or nothing." The Hong Kong government ponied up 60% of the university's $400 million construction cost, while the rest came from the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, the gaming monopoly that last year separated the colony's 1 million horse-race fanatics from a staggering $6 billion.

The gleaming seaside campus is just part of Hong Kong's crash program to drag its industry into the 21st century. Hong Kong has been notorious for timely knockoffs but not for innovation. Now, shaking its laissez-faire ways, the government is funding research centers for everything from computer chips to biotechnology to catch up with the other Tigers: Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, which are already reaping the benefits of concerted government efforts to shift their economies from cheap assembly work to high tech. Hong Kong's economic model is what the run-and-shoot offense is to football: Its entrepreneurs lunge for quick fortunes in market niches in electronics, toys, and garments. Consummate competitors on price, they will open a 1,000-worker factory in as little as two months.

While such nimbleness may continue to serve Hong Kong well for years, it has qualms about placing all its eggs in one basket. Any instability in China, where Hong Kong does most of its manufacturing, could tip that basket over. Meanwhile, the enclave spends a paltry 0.04% of gross national product on R&D, compared to Taiwan's 1.2%.

"For Hong Kong, a compact-disk player is considered very high-tech," says Lily Chiang, executive director of Chen Hsong Machinery Co. A $100 million maker of injection-molding machines and robotic arms, Chen Hsong is doing its part by donating $1.2 million to a new off-campus plastics-technology center.

RAILBIRD RICHES. One reason why so many of Asia's top techies study and work in the U.S. is that the region has never before had a full-blown, MIT-style science and technology university. The hope is that, over time, local branches of multinationals and hundreds of local startups will cluster around the campus. The dream is for the university to be to Hong Kong what Stanford University has been to Silicon Valley: an academic test bed for emerging technologies and a perpetual talent pool.

So far, however, Hong Kong industry, if anything, seems baffled by all the hopeful talk. "The type of entrepreneurs we aim to help aren't even here yet," concedes Woo. "They will come with the next generation."

By 1999, the new university expects to have 10,000 students and 1,000 faculty. The bachelors' programs will be reserved almost entirely for Hong Kong residents, while the school hopes to draw half of some 5,000 graduate students from abroad. Students from China will be particularly welcome. Hong Kong leaders hope the school will be an incentive for China not to undo the status quo when it assumes control from Britain in 1997. Chinese delegations have visited the campus and have supported it and its low-tuition operating principles.

CLEAN SLATE. For faculty, the opportunity to shape a new institution is one of the big draws. Take Nelson Cue, a leading expert in the obscure study of high-energy fields in solids and former chairman of the physics department at the State University of New York at Albany. He got the similar post in Hong Kong after responding to a 1989 ad in Physics Today. "In American academia, I could pretty much chart what I would be doing for the next 20 years," he tells me over lunch in the spanking new faculty cafeteria. "How often does an academic get the chance to build a program from scratch?"

Another attraction is that, although now in a British colony, the university has America stamped all over it. The faculty is mostly American, and the curriculum, with its wide selection of electives, is based on the U.S. model. The entire business school, in fact, "is almost an exact copy of the program at UCLA," says business school Dean Ernest J. Scalberg. "There is no other unabashedly American university in this part of the world."

So unabashed it even has a rainmaker for corporate sponsorships: Thomas E. Stelson, whom I first met in Atlanta in 1987, where he did similar work for Georgia Tech, one of the U.S. schools most successful and up-front at snagging research grants from the Pentagon and big corporations. "When we get everything together, we'll be an education powerhouse that will serve Hong Kong industry like never before," Stelson says, listing corporate targets. Meantime, to pay for all those fancy buildings and labs, there are the generous coffers of the racetrack, Hong Kong's biggest charity donor. Of course, if all the dreams of Stelson and the rest of the staff come true, the new campus will hardly be a charity case.

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