By Tamsyn Burgmann
John Burns watched nervously out his window on 30 June 1997 as British military ships and helicopters made a final inspection tour of the East Lamma Channel, contemplating the era about to unfold and the decisions he had made.
The professor had been teaching at the University of Hong Kong for two decades when the colony’s 99-year lease expired, ushering in the handover that would return Hong Kong to Chinese rule. “All the foreigners in the politics department left,” the American-born scholar recalled the 20 years later from his home office with the same view of that last ceremony. “I was the only one who stayed.”
It was a decision made amid great uncertainty that would mark the halfway point of an eclectic academic career during which he would uniquely experience both the university’s reinvention and the rise of China. Burns, now 70, is set to retire on 31 August, in his last post as dean of HKU’s Faculty of Social Sciences.
Over four decades he repeatedly decided to stay in Hong Kong, weathering moments of crisis in the workplace and the world around him—and prospering and witnessing history as a result. “There isn’t any analysis I did that allowed me to accurately foresee the future. It was just, well, stay and see what happens,” he reflected. “It was about risk-taking.”
A modest start
Burns stayed the first time when HKU was the only local university to acknowledge him. Born in small-town Ohio, Burns initially travelled to Hong Kong in the mid-1970s, when the United States and China had not yet established diplomatic relations.
Hong Kong offered proximity to the Mainland from which he could interview recent emigres in order to finish a Ph.D. dissertation on rural China. “I enjoyed the freedom in Hong Kong. The liberal values, by and large, without the authoritarian controls,” he said. “All this information was pouring out of the Mainland.”
He started at HKU in 1977 as a part-time “demonstrator,” long before the University boasted global stature. Burns described it as a colonial institution whose faculty, many of them British people “who had been chased out of various colonies: Africa, Malaya, Singapore,” sometimes bristled at conducting independent research.
Yet for him it was a portal, especially when only a year later the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China forged ties and the country began opening up. Reform ensued. So did setbacks. He refused to be spooked when, in the early 1980s, the Hong Kong dollar collapsed in connection with panic around the Sino-British Joint Declaration negotiations.
Instead, he took advantage of new cross-border privileges and spent about eight months in Beijing mid-decade for an academic project. Taking change in stride, he moved up the university’s rungs. To enhance his academic pursuits, he learned “bureaucratic Chinese,” enabling him to collect research on his passion—the civil service system in China—in part by exchanging his knowledge of the West for information from scholars on the Mainland.
Then on 4 June 1989 came reports that China’s army had brutally dispersed pro-democracy protesters in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Burns said the crisis, for him, led to a period of doubt. “I was thinking, ‘I am supposedly a specialist in this area. Do I think the future for China is good?’” he said. “I can remember at the time I said, ‘Definitely not.’ Of course, I was wrong.”
Burns stayed and outlasted the Tiananmen crisis, only to meet anxiety and resistance on his doorstep. In 1996, a new vice-chancellor, Patrick Cheng, began an institutional overhaul of HKU amid the tense atmosphere of the impending handover. To boost the school’s international reputation, Cheng scrapped the colonial legacy in favour of a North American-styled tenure and promotion system.
Many old-timers fought the change, contrasting with Burns’s firm support for the overhaul, although his involvement was limited to encouraging colleagues to come onside and meting out promotions as part of a senior personnel committee.
Disagreements soon swirled and he watched as that same vice-chancellor become embroiled in scandal and then, according to Burns, was forced out. “We were moving in the right direction,” he said. “Even though it was difficult, it was necessary.”
Outside the university gates, the city was equally in the unsettling grips of transformation. Burns said the handover era was, for him, another period of doubt. “No, I was not relaxed,” he remembered.
Looking out his window at the naval formation that watershed day in 1997, he recalled himself conjuring up reassuring thoughts: “Well, tomorrow is going to be Chinese rule. Is everything going to be the same? Well, I’ll probably get the newspaper the same. The TV programmes will still be the same,” he said. “I went through a list of things [that would be] the same.”
The changes for both Hong Kong and HKU were, in fact, boons to Burns’s life. He benefited from the university’s meritocratic regime and improving reputation. “I could have gone back to the U.S. I was offered a job in Australia. I could have gone to the U.K.,” he noted. “I chose not to do those things.”
Rising in the East
Without really meaning to, Burns had developed a track record for not flinching. By the new millennium, his life and career had become fully intertwined with the region, and he wasn’t considering anything but staying on.
He evaded the University’s retirement age requirements—60 for academics—first with an approved extension and then by shifting into administration. In 2011, he launched into a five-year term (and another extension) as dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences—and a series of professional trials.
Among the rewarding challenges was the chance to influence the strategic direction of the social sciences faculty such as narrowing its focus from 15 subjects to strengths in China studies, NGOs and civil society, social and cognitive neuroscience and public policy. “I’m not saying we’ve achieved as much as I would have liked in any of these areas, but we have made a start,” he said.
The more thankless challenges ranged from a colleague who went missing in rural Laos to a graduate student who was found dead in a public toilet, he said. “All the personnel problems and financial problems are just dumped on you,” he added. “I will be relieved to let somebody else do these from September 1.”
China’s ongoing ascendance, meantime, had kept Burns enraptured—all the while he grew increasingly disenchanted with America. “This didn’t happen as a result of Trump, it was way before that,” he said, citing his disgust with the U.S.’s gun culture and its widespread imperialism.
In 2013, Burns became a Chinese citizen. Having persisted through earlier tumult, he now sounds enthralled when speaking about incidents that might once have fazed him. “Here we are facing the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping, the anti-corruption campaign. People disappearing daily as we speak,” he said excitedly.
“[China is] either over the top in debt, or it’s racing along with the best high-speed rail in the world, or it’s building the Belt and Road, or it’s messing around in the South China Sea,” he continued. “And that’s not even talking about changes to Chinese society, the growth of the middle class and all this kind of stuff. There’s so much going on there that it’s difficult not to be fascinated.”
Even with retirement on the horizon, Burns is intent on sticking around. Two days after his official departure date, he’ll start back at HKU as a part-time professor in his former department. He’s already musing about writing projects he’s delayed, including a review of the autonomy of HKU and other Hong Kong universities’ “complex…conflicted” relationship to the state.
“If you stop, you die,” he said. “Dementia and Alzheimer’s kick in. I want to carry on as long as I am physically able, mentally able and the University will have me in one way or another.”
Over his 40 years at HKU, the school has climbed to a globally competitive ranking. Hong Kong, meanwhile, recently commemorated its 20th anniversary of the handover—albeit with Mainland officials licking their lips.
While the future was repeatedly uncertain, Burns now casts his gaze out his window in peace. Having found his desire to stay in Hong Kong consistently outweighed his doubts, he’s not planning on going anywhere. “Staying was a choice, a conscious choice. I decided I would take the risk,” he said. “And I’m glad I did. It was absolutely the right choice.”
Tamsyn Burgmann is a multimedia journalist who is a recent graduate of the Master of Journalism programme at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong. Prior to moving to Hong Kong, Tamsyn worked for over ten years at Canada’s top news agencies, including The Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Photography by Foon Lee. Archival photos provided by Professor John Burns.