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HKU Professor series- Prof. Joseph Chan

March 21, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

Prof Joseph Chan Cho-wai is a professor in the department of politics and public administration in the Faculty of Social Sciences. I was introduced to Prof. Chan in his common core course “ The Best Things in life: A philosophical exploration” and I really enjoyed it! Along with his common core, he teaches political theory and researches in the areas of Confucian political philosophy, contemporary liberalism and perfectionism, human rights, and civil society. Furthermore, he was deputy chairman and chairman of the University’s Common Core Curriculum Committee from 2007-2016 and has been an elected member of the University’s Council since November 2015.

1. Why did you choose political philosophy and what was your major in your undergraduate?

Well, I did my major in politics. It is a combination of circumstantial and accidental reasons. In high school, I was a science student. I didn’t study history, public affairs, and economics. But  I cared more about people than the abstract natural or physical world. Although, I am very curious about that too. I like physics a lot. My concern for human lives more narrowed my choices within the social sciences.  I preferred sociology and politics over communication and social work which were further away from my immediate interest. I prefer knowing more about society, politics, and culture. At that time, I studied politics because the title of my major was government and public administration, I thought that this would probably provide me an edge when applying for a government position (laughs).


After choosing politics, I became more sensitive to political issues and during that time, for the very first time, the future of hong kong was being discussed. This was back in the colonial times in 1979. People already started talking about how our future is going to flash out after 1997, which seems to be the deadline of our colonial traditions. I became interested in major political issues surrounding the future of Hong Kong such as democracy, human rights, liberty,  patriotism, and nationalism. I was curious about knowing whether we should return to China and why? Do we have a moral duty to be a Chinese citizen? That exercised my interest a lot. I turned to political philosophy because I have a very philosophical mind. I am not interested in how politics, government or departments work or even how public policies are made.  Sure, I want to know something about it, but at the end of it, I want to know more about the foundation of politics, especially the normative foundations.


I also remember during my undergrad, my student union used to talk about social justice. They used to say that “ Hong Kong was a very unjust society and we want social justice!”. This always appeared on their banners and posters. Being a critical person, I thought what does social justice really mean? Why do we say that Hong Kong is an unjust society and  I began to read books on social justice and then I found John Rauls’ book.  He was a hugely influential political philosopher in America, who wrote a modern classic called the “Theory of justice” which was published in 1971. This was just about 8 years  before I entered university and was still very much being discussed. I was impressed by the ambition of the theory, it tackles fundamental questions in political philosophy without losing sight of the practical aspects of distribution of resources , civil disobedience, rights and other things. So I thought  Wow! , Political philosophy can help us achieve a lot things ,it can provide us vision and guidance.


2. What kind of music do you enjoy?

As a teenager, I listen to a lot of western folk songs. Some of my favorite singers from my generation were Elton John, James Taylor, and much more. But more abstractly I don’t like to look at the genre of music. any type of music would be good for me – western or Chinese. What I like is not a genre but the melody in it. I don’t like music that doesn’t have a melody. For instances, I can stand Jazz for the first 10 to 15 mins, but not beyond, due to its lack of melody.  Even, Rock which has repeated lines or notes but no development or complexity -just a lot of power in it. Melody based music is what I like.

3. Who were some of the most impactful professors during your undergraduate studies?


There weren’t a lot but there were a few. Back in the political science department of CUHK, I did have a professor.  He was not a theorist but he had a philosophical mind and he did read about political philosophy. He was so kind to me that he was willing to spend a morning every week during the summers discussing John Ross’s “Theory of justice” with me. There was also another professor from the philosophy department with whom I involved in similar discussions, but other than that my learning and study was all by myself.  I read a lot, I thought and argued a lot with my peers and still do, that has helped me to grow a lot.


4. What do you do in your free time?


I don’t have much spare time now! But. Whenever possible I listen to music. I love music! I will often take my guitar and “dust it off” and play a few songs to myself. I also enjoy hiking, which is one of my recent hobbies. I also play some table tennis just to keep my body active. But mostly I love to interact with my good friends. I like to see them and talk whenever I can. Being friends you don’t need to do something specifically.  But if I had more time I would like to learn to play the piano again. I am really busy now. When I was younger I did play a lot of basketball. But eventually, I realized I couldn’t do everything. I cut sports and music out and focused on academics. I do regret it, though.


5. How do you prepare for your lecture? How do you make it interactive and impactful?


There are two elements to it . First of all, the best way to teach philosophy is to adopt what Socrates had done, which is keep talking to people. If you don’t talk to people you don’t know what they think and you  won’t be able to analyse the flaws in their thinking. The most effective way to help them think is to let them argue with you  It’s like learning a bicycle.  I have to put you on a bicycle  to help you learn. The only way  I can  help you to think is to ask questions and stimulate your thinking . But how to ask he right questions? To think of the points that I should stop and will incite your curiosity, requires preparation. For a fresh new lecture, such as this common core, I use 4 full days to prepare for a 2 hour lecture. But as the years go by I need less preparation. But I still need to prepare, because this is a subject that makes infinite progress and development. It is all about understanding human life and there are so many perspective and stories. There is always room for improvement. These subjects are so difficult that I would never regard myself as adequate.  I have to read up more to find an interesting view or angle every time.


6. What difference do you feel when you are teaching a common core vs a core course?


My teaching style is quite similar, even if you did one of my core course you would find it interactive.  Although  for a common core, I have to lower the level as they are first and second years students coming from different background. I cannot talk too much about theories , it has to be more  accessible. But  for core subjects, I have to be accessible and have to pitch at a higher level. Students response are more sophisticated than common core students. But I enjoy teaching common core course. These students are so fresh, they are like my guinea pigs and I could try out new things and they don’t know I am playing tricks with them. The subject that I teach “ the best things in life” I think its so relevant to young students, that it is the best opportunity for them to think about there subject in there 1st and 2nd year. This is a very personal course in one way. Much more personal than the political philosophy course that I teach. I can see there is an additional element that cannot be found in other courses. It makes you think about your life!


7. What role does Common Core play in university life?


I think it opens people up. It exposes them to the human and natural order and broadens their mind.  This better than the previous UK system, where you started off by declaring a major in a narrow subject and where you are stuck for 3 to four year in the same field. We thought in was no good.


The common core is a huge operation. The subject,  the title and the quality of teaching vary from course to course. It is a bit of luck whether you choose the right course with the right teacher! Some students to hate it, to them it seems like an unnecessary distraction from there major, it doesn’t add any value to the “career prospect”. But other students just love it. They think that these are some of the best courses they have ever taken in their entire university life. In fact, when fourth-year students finish the evaluation of their entire academic time, say that the common core was the best component.

8. How long have you taught HKU and how has it changed over the years?


Well, I am old furniture here!  I started in 1990,  so this might be my 26th year! The university has completely changed to a point that it is not recognizable if you were staying in the past. When I joined the university, the atmosphere was very “relaxing”. Students were very relaxed and so were the professors. There wasn’t too much publication pressure and there wasn’t a student evaluation exercise. It’s just really easy going. But of course, things have change. The academic sector has changed throughout the world. It’s much more top-down driven with lots of evaluation. Publications are evaluated every year, the teaching is evaluated by students and we also have to evaluate you with a lot of homework and continuous assessment. In the past, it was the just final examination, no mid-term or continuous assessment. It’s much more organized and much more demanding. The quality of research and teaching has gone up. But I do believe that there is a danger of over-regulating and to much demand being put on GPA from the students. You might not have too much time to be idle, stay in your room and think about ground questions.  There is not much time to do that.


9 .What does want the general public take away from the field?


I work on comparative Confucius philosophy. Which has a cultural dimension.  I consider it very relevant to the modern world, but I don’t  receive much opportunity to express myself in laymen languages like Chinese. I did sometimes give a public lecture in Chinese. For example, when my book was published, I gave book talks. Sometimes, I write newspaper commentary and columns to reflect upon politics in Hong Kong. But other than that I have been active in Hong Kong politics as a participant. I founded a party and a political group. When I participate I have my political philosophy in mind and it is my political philosophy that guides my strategies and my temperament. It hard to separate yourself as a citizen and a scholar. I believe that moderation is important in politics and life. I like to integrate from different perspective and tradition. In politics, I do the same. I’m not a very confrontational person, trying to put people down to win. I don’t adopt a “winner take all” approach. It isn’t that my theories influence the public. My theories inform my political action, which may or may not have any impact on society.


10. Do you have any message for international students?


I like to think that  Hong Kong has been a place where east meets west. There is a lot of cultural interchanges, coalition, and integration. It is part of China and yet different from other parts. You can go from Hong Kong to many different parts of Asia very easily. It is a very liberal country with a strong rule of law. Hong Kong is a unique place to understand the eastern and western world. Furthermore, the medium of instruction is English making it easy for people who don’t know Chinese to fit in. Hong Kong I would say is a much more interesting place than Singapore, although it is English speaking, its cities dynamics and civil society is dynamic and rich in Hong Kong. So if someone wants to stay in Asia and wants a cosmopolitan society and also have a direct access to different Asian cultures, Hong Kong is the best place. Furthermore, Hong Kong university being the oldest and the most prestigious university in Hong Kong is, of course, the place to be. This, of course, doesn’t mean there will be no problem of adaptation inclusion problems. But I guess any foreign visiting student will have this problem where ever they go. They would have to take an extra effort to integrate to interact and build a friendship with the local people. This might be the only challenge, I suppose.


11 .What was your experience going to an international university?


So long as you go to a different place you’ll learn a lot. Many of our students when they go for exchange studies,  they comeback and tell me that there is so much to learn out there. Just by being in a different culture they learn a lot. I studied in the UK and UK tends to be conservative than U.S or HK.  It isn’t that open to foreigners, believe it or not! You really need to make an effort to make friendship with the British people. But I enjoyed my time a lot. I made some good friends. Even now, I when some one stops over at Hong Kong they ring me and we meet up. I have made some life long friends.

But living abroad also raises another challenge.  You understand who you are, I think it was the first time I felt that I was a Chinese person when  I went to the UK to study. I went into a reception room for the master program. I was the only “ non-white person” in the room. I felt so odd. It makes you ask questions about where you come from, as I spoke and looked so different from the rest. I became aware of my ethnic and cultural identity. When you live in the same group of people for life you just feel like you are one of them. The question of self-identity pops up. This is the best moment to take the opportunity to understand yourself and know who you are. How much has your cultural, ethnic background influenced you? You also realized that there are so many different ways to live life out there. People can practice a different way of life. That is one of the most interesting things.


I am a 2nd Year undergraduate majoring in Biochemistry, aiming to unravel the secret of life. I love philosophy and debating.