top of page

Interview with the President

Professor Zhang, may we begin by reflecting on your early years. You were born in Nanjing in China’s Jiangsu province. What memories do you have of your childhood and the formative experiences that shape you?


My family was of modest means like many others at the time. We were very happy, but we did not have much, which required us to be creative in how we approached life. For example, because there was no way of cooling our small apartment during the summer months, I studied outdoors during the evenings in the community compound. In fact, this is how I revised for my university entrance exams. But my parents instilled in me a love for education, particularly my father who was a high school history teacher. He encouraged me to think out-of-the-box. Even though he wasn’t a scientist, his words were invaluable to my work at Berkeley and now at HKU. By paying forward what he gave me as a child, I want every student to experience the same joy for learning I have. Learning is a lifelong journey that unlocks possibilities and ignites imaginations.


You have a dream to use the wonder and value of education to create a family at HKU that “participates, contributes, and leads”. In today’s context, what does that mean?


It means stepping up to the challenge and delivering for your community. HKU has a moral duty to use the knowledge we create to benefit the public good, especially as we celebrate 111 years of our university in 2022. Through its storied history, our women and men have responded to their times including in the current crisis, where the contribution of our scientists and health workers to the COVID-19 effort is recognized internationally. We invest locally as well. We are the only university campus to have its own community vaccination center where anyone is welcome to come, especially our elders. Every life is precious, every life counts. Not only in the pandemic, but in all areas of life, we have an opportunity to empower our university family to improve the human condition.


The world is experiencing universal risks such as poverty, disease outbreaks, and climate change. How do you encourage students to fulfil their potential in this fragile environment?


And let’s not forget mental health, which is always important and especially now. I worry about the world today tomorrow. Extreme poverty is on the rise for the first time in a quarter century, the current pandemic will surely be followed by a next pandemic, while climate change not only concerns our natural world but the very survival of humanity. The way we teach at HKU looks at these problems from the outside-in, builds personal values with purpose in mind, and seeks creative collaboration within and beyond our campus. Our problems are shared, and so are our solutions. As educators, we need to protect our students so they truly thrive. Billions of days in education have been lost in this pandemic, but we have tried our best to maintain face-to-face teaching at HKU, thanks to the excellence and compassion of our faculty and staff. 


On your first day as HKU’s President and Vice-Chancellor in July 2018, you made a commitment to build a world-class university that creates generations of leaders. What qualities are necessary to achieve this level of institution?


I remember the promise I made. In the case of HKU, and bearing in mind the needs of the community around us, we are creating a university that is truly fit for purpose in the 21st century. As you said, we are living in a time of universal risks that is breaking the seams of society. So, how do we respond? And, more importantly, how do we anticipate those rapid changes so we can ‘prepare’ and not only ‘react’? We need to ensure that we draw the best talent in teaching, research, and students. Building our academic excellence will extend our impact globally, and a future with excellence at its core will make HKU a world-leading university. But we also need to foster an environment that is inclusive and stimulating. I want everyone in the HKU community to thrive through life. 


You also lead a number of milestone projects to transform HKU. Tell us about some of those initiatives and the outcomes you envision?


We have exciting initiatives underway including an international hub for frontier research and innovation on a new site in Pokfulam that will enhance our global leadership. We are also breaking ground on Tech Landmark, another dynamic space that harmonizes collaboration between ten institutes such as ageing, quantum science, data and artificial intelligence, public policy, and smart cities among others. But our impact will not only be felt locally: beyond Pokfulam, we are establishing the HKU Campus in Shenzhen, offering us tremendous opportunities to expand our programs, collaborate with industry, and radiate our impact to the Greater Bay Area and beyond. The future is ours to shape — and we are putting in place the infrastructure to make that happen.


How far will this world-class infrastructure take HKU into the future you describe?


Infrastructure is an important aspect of any university because it allows us to expand in new ways — but, our people define our success. Through different pathways, we are recruiting world-leading scholars from top-tier universities around the world. The continued strengthening of our academic leadership will inject fresh ideas on campus, nurture an intellectually vibrant landscape, and motivate our community to set and reach brave and ambitious goals. With talent, research, and collaboration in place, we have the capacity to achieve breakthroughs we may not have thought possible.


That’s a great way to lead into innovation, which is at the center of your vision. As HKU continues to transform, what can we anticipate?


I’m very excited as we look ahead — not despite the problems in our world today, but because of our ability as a world to solve these challenges. Technology, innovation, and compassionate unlocks the best in us. Here at HKU, we are laying the groundwork that will serve us in the next century, so that next generations of leaders build on the legacy of the students, faculty, and staff who came before them. Imagine this: we have a chance to build dynamic ideas at scale to improve conditions in the span of a lifetime. That excites me.


The University of Hong Kong honors its 111th Anniversary in 2022. What does this mean to you?


At the launch of our anniversary year on our Foundation Day on March 16, 2022, I paid tribute to the people of Hong Kong. They have shaped and supported this university for over a century. We have a duty to acknowledge and return that loyalty especially as the launch coincided with the worst wave of the pandemic to date. I reminded them that our city has witnessed many challenges in history be it war, foreign occupation, or disease outbreak. We survived them all and we emerged stronger every time. Hong Kong — and specifically the people of Hong Kong — has a spirit of resolve and resilience that is equaled by few other global cities. The world is struggling with the consequences of interconnected crises, but I believe that a light will appear at this end of this tunnel. Hope is the most powerful human emotion of all.


Professor Zhang, thank you.

bottom of page