Is `The Mit Of Asia' Growing In Hong Kong?

In a place where dramatic views from executive suites are commonplace, Woo Chai-wei, president of Hong Kong's new University of Science & Technology, has an exceptional office. From atop the bluff where the school's spanking-new $450 million complex stands, a wall of plate glass offers a sweeping panorama of Port Shelter Bay in the New Territories.

But Woo, who left the presidency of San Francisco State University in 1988 to develop the "MIT of Asia," is fonder of the huge map on the back wall of his office. Pointing to the largely undeveloped Clear Water Bay Peninsula south of campus, he says: "Someday, this will be Hong Kong's Silicon Valley."

In one of Asia's most ambitious efforts to leap into the future, Woo is out to create a first-rank science academy that will keep talented students at home. Already, the 55-year-old physicist has recruited an impressive array of talent, drawn by starting salaries of $87,600 for a professor and the chance to build from scratch. Faculty members range from H.K. Yang, formerly head of the University of Southern California's biomedical engineering department, to Zheng Jiaqi, a physics researcher from the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences.

YOUNG WIZARDS. Perhaps more than any other project in Asia, the university--built with grants from the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the government--embodies Asia's hopes for high-tech recognition. Hong Kong's entrepreneurs have long been known for having the shortest time horizons on earth, doing virtually no research.

But a new breed of global-thinking technologist is on the scene, fresh from long stints in America's best companies and universities. These young wizards, whether they make portable computers or cellular phones, appreciate the need for research and development. Increasingly, they are hooking up with multinationals such as Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola, which recently completed a $400 million semiconductor complex dubbed Silicon Harbor. The result: Hong Kong is fusing Western technology with the Chinese genius for low-cost manufacturing and rapid adaptation.

Not only is this lifting Hong Kong beyond the era of sweatshops into the age of advanced electronics and telecommunications. It also may present a new paradigm for industrial competitiveness that could challenge the Japan Inc. model of nationalism, vertical integration, and massive outlay on factories of the future.

The new university aims to transform Hong Kong, as well as all of South China, by creating a firm foundation in basic science. With strong departments emerging in engineering, computer science, physics, and biology, there's little doubt that the school will be a redoubtable educational institution, so long as financial backing continues after China takes over Hong Kong in 1997. Right now, Woo isn't worried. With 2,200 students and funding for 5,000 more, in addition to 640 faculty members, "we have reached critical mass," he maintains.

INTEGRATION. Whether it will be recognized as a world-renowned research center depends on its ability to win industry support. It now has 180 contract grants ranging from $6,000 to $13 million. While small by Western standards, that's a start. Moreover, such multinationals as Motorola Inc. are actively negotiating additional contract grants, says Vice-Chancellor Thomas E. Stelson, who left Georgia Institute of Technology to manage research.

If other big companies sign up, the Tigers' integration into the global stream of leading-edge research and alliances will be complete. They would then be able to nurture Asian engineers and designers at home, while luring some of the world's best brains. And the fruit of their combined efforts could be spread to the small and medium-size companies that are the real workhorses in the Asian dynamo. It's an extraordinarily ambitious agenda, but in today's Asia, nothing looks impossible. Which is why, by decade's end, this Silicon Valley may be one of many all across the supercharged region.

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