University of Hong Kong Knowledge & Discourse Conference Review

This article first appeared in the Asia-Pacific EXchange (Electronic) Journal, Volume 3, Number 1 (June 1996), published in gopher format by the University of Hawaii - Kapiolani Community College. Uploaded to this Website on 11 June 1999.

East meets West and South in Hong Kong

by Steve McCarty

Professor in Japan

Scholars from every continent met in Hong Kong for consecutive international multidisciplinary conferences in June of 1996. Hong Kong University hosted "Knowledge and Discourse: Changing Relationships across Academic Disciplines and Professional Practices." Then Hong Kong Polytechnic held a more specialized conference on "Language Rights," particularly to define and defend linguistic human rights. The Hong Kong setting, one year before its reversion to China, provided a sort of subtext resonating with the conference themes.

It was significant that Knowledge and Discourse was co-sponsored by Beijing University of Foreign Studies, as the second conference in 1998 will be held in both Beijing and post-colonial Hong Kong. The quality of discourse between Chinese and Western scholars was another subtext and perhaps a test case toward Beijing. There were only a few hundred in attendance, many of whom were invited, so the form of conference proceedings published will be another key to the efficacy of the gathering as a social movement. Looking just at the e-mail access of presenters, through which conference- related communications could be sustained in defiance of great geographical distances, addresses were: Hong Kong - 33, Australia -18, UK - 17, US - 14, Canada - 9, Japan - 9, China - 6, Brazil - 4; with 2 or 3 from each of India, Singapore, The Phillipines, New Zealand, Spain, Zimbabwe, Israel, Thailand, Germany, South Africa; and 1 from each of France, Italy, Brunei, Sweden, Austria, Turkey, Russia, Norway, Columbia, and Taiwan.

People who responded to conference notices by e-mail, fax or mail received a copiously articulated statement of the vision behind the Knowledge and Discourse Conference, by Colin Barron, Nigel Bruce et al. at the University of Hong Kong English Centre, e.g.:

"Some Issues and Questions that the Conference will address. * The philosophical perspective: exploring issues of power, authority and interested knowledge in academic disciplines. * The social perspective: exploring issues of representation, imperialism and ideology in academic practices. * The historical perspective: the development of particular academic disciplines and professional practices. * The linguistic perspective: how language can be used to either support or impede interdisciplinary communication. * Changes in professional practices and how they affect tertiary and secondary curricula, and vice versa."

Citing only sub-themes of relevance to the mission of the Asia- Pacific EXchange, these included:

"* pan-disciplinary issues, such as those of gender, race and ethnicity, class, and culture in academic disciplines and professional practices. * The effects of foreign language education on cultures and knowledge systems. * How are non-Western societies adapting Western academic and professional models to their own cultural needs and settings? * Are non-Western cultures resisting Western norms of academic practice and, if so, why and how?"

The multidisciplinarity of Knowledge and Discourse was evident in the ten thematic areas in terms of which 187 presentations were organized into colloquia: Knowledge systems - discourses; Science, social sciences - technology; Women, power - identity; Academic - professional cultures; Disciplinary - professional discourses; Cross-cultural communication; Literacy; Discourse Analysis; and Critical/Social Linguistics. Within those themes were particular colloquium titles, with a coordinator invited who was a leader in the field and/or one of the presenters. As one example, I coordinated a Cross-Cultural Communication/ Japan colloquium and presented a critique of the English Language Teaching profession in Japan.

An overarching approach as the converse of multidisciplinarity was for speakers to apply critical theory to various disciplines, demolishing their disciplinary boundaries along with their complacent claims to scientific truth. At the same time both this conference and Language Rights fully expected the "empire" to "strike back," as it were. Dubbed the enfant terrible of the field with his critical applied linguistics, the plenary speech of Alastair Pennycook (author of The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language) did evoke a "we don't want you" comment from establishment linguist Chris Candlin. This theme ran through the Language Rights Conference as well, where main speakers included Robert Phillipson (Linguistic Imperialism) and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (Bilingualism or Not), co-editors of Linguistic Human Rights (NY: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995). As English as an International Language is a multi-billion dollar industry, critiques of interested knowledge and the cultural baggage of English tend to be more welcome with non-native than native speakers. One question is whether or not critical theory can instill a new ethos of critical self-reflection in such professions and remain a social movement without being absorbed into the establishment by the very persuasiveness of its critique.

The keynote address by Steve Fuller, an American sociologist of knowledge now in the UK, showed how new paradigms have become social movements, but then lost their creative impetus when they fossilized into sectarian disciplines. Japan proved, moreover, that there could be science without Western culture and paradigms. Modernization theory in the history of science was proven wrong as Japan modernized in a fraction of the expected time, precisely because Confucian culture did not have the religious and philosophical hang-ups that have held up scientific progress in the West. Nor is science dependent on Indo-European languages, because ideographic Chinese characters used in East Asia can work at least as well. Japan has also progressed unimpeded by not placing pure scientific theory on a pedestal above hands-on polytechnic education.

The first plenary was by Kalpana Ram, a Tamil Indian now in Australia. She showed how postcolonial experiences of non- Westerners do not merely affirm Western critiques of modernity but point to their inadequacies. Non-Westerners are allocated to anthropology rather than sociology, their subjectivities lost to descriptions of social structures and collectivities. Women in poverty, for example, are concerned rather with emancipation. Kalpana demonstrated both how critical theory has empowered her and how she has realized non-Western ways of knowing within her own tradition. She showed with passion how "the past is unreconciled experience."

Each plenary was a tour de force, but in this limited space we might serve another subtext of the Hong Kong conferences by listening as Asian speakers are given the podium. It may not be well enough known that they already have a voice. Zhu Zhichang, from China but now in the UK, lost his educational chances to the cultural revolution, but has made up for it with self-education. He has applied Confucian and Taoist philosophy to systems theory in modern studies of industry. To multi-perspective or multi-modal approaches he adds cross-paradigmatic or cross-cultural dimensions. For as he cited Confucius, "a great man achieves harmony while retaining differences."

Perhaps the key speaker was Gu Yueguo, representing Beijing Foreign Studies University, the conference co-sponsor. He described China from 1949-65 as Mao's class struggle, then the "devastating" cultural revolution, with Deng's socialism since 1976. Now there are "1.2 billion minds ... changing at a dazzling speed." Totalitarian collectivism is moving toward democratic individualism. More diverse information is being published, although people can still get in trouble for ideas considered subversive. Diversity tends to be seen as a threat because China has a history of undoing by its loose ends. The Chinese mind, Gu stated, is poor at putting together loose ends to build up strength. Unlike the Japanese who unite, the Chinese tend to separate. Thus the Chinese still prefer a sage king like Confucius or Deng to a democratic president.

The Hong Kong conferences provided a rare glimpse into China and some countries little known, at least in the West. Colin Barron documented a case of media distortion in Australian coverage of its former colony, Papua New Guinea. Black faces were kept off the TV screen while Caucasians perpetuated belittling stereotypes about the aboriginals, who had actually handled a sudden volcanic eruption quite creditably by themselves, according to the United Nations.

The conference proceedings will be worth reading, as not even all the highlights can be recounted in this space. The soon-to-be post-colonial situation of Hong Kong gave many issues a practical imperative. How are Westerners to respond to this historic change without grasping at straws of vestigial colonialism? Can Americans and other Westerners avert the historical consequences of unilateralism and dominance that have rendered non-Cantonese speaking Hong Kong British resident David Ibison a self-admitted "anachronism"? ("Devil's Advocate." Sunday Morning Post Magazine, June 23, 1996, p. 4). Asian studies are one answer, but there are still basic assumptions in our own culture which, if unexamined, can send signals of a continued Western imperium to people of the East and South. Nothing less than East-West biculturalism and mutual respect including the South in a multilateral world order may suffice for the 21st Century.

We could speak of a report card on East-West discourse at the Hong Kong conferences, because the consequences will be palpable even as participants go back to their respective continents. There were signs that, taking the English native speaker advantage for granted, Westerners assumed that they knew best. Toward Asians presenting in their second language, questions or rather comments by Westerners tended to condescend rather than enquire to elicit new knowledge. There was the charge, for example, that it is the parents in Hong Kong who insist on English-medium instruction instead of Cantonese. A Hong Kong presenter, Angel Lin, responded that it is a structure that gives the parents no real choice. Despite her eloquent response, Dr. Lin was crying for a long time after the colloquium, raising deeper issues of cross-cultural insensitivity.

At the Language Rights conference a similar pattern was in evidence, though I had to leave before the first day ended. A comment was leveled at Hong Kong University Law School Dean Albert Chen without the expectation of of learning anything. I then criticized the imposition of a Western monocultural academic discourse paradigm, calling for attention to cross-cultural pragmatics and intercultural sensitivity. Prof. Chen then shot back that mine was not a true question either. Without recalling his background in law, I ingenuously answered, "Mea culpa." This drew some appreciative laughter and an invitation to a lunch table with all Asians.

The English-speaking Asians have taken the trouble to become bicultural to some extent. It would be unjust to expect them to assimilate to Western ways or to do all the accomodating, linguistically and culturally. One last anecdote aims to show what is involved here. When the Beijing plenary speaker presented at Knowledge and Discourse, he went out on a limb as far as he could with a newborn baby and possible future influence in China. But the last questioner made a hostile comment as if Prof. Gu had not gone far enough. The chances for a Beijing conference in 1998 may have been jeopardized. In Chinese culture to talk down to a person of higher status is beyond the pale. At the final panel I therefore apologized to Prof. Gu for the man's comment, saying that he was not representative of the rest of us. Here it was my acculturation to Japan recognizing people's statements as representative of their group. Prof. Gu then thanked me while explaining the extenuating circumstances of the Westerner from South Africa, and recognizing that such discourse was acceptable at an academic conference. Afterwards a Western professor made it clear to me that he had just heard the part affirming such academic discourse. This in turn seemed monocultural to me, because I had also heard Gu begin and end his reply by thanking my kindness. His reply, like my apology, was on two tracks, from one East-West bicultural to another.

Updated on 27 October 2016

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