Published: 19:45, April 12, 2024
HK getting plenty of scientific, technological attention from mainland
By Quentin Parker

A fascinating scientific research ship visited the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for the first time this week, the Xue Long 2.


This is part of a pattern of serious and high-profile engagements between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong to showcase the country’s technological and scientific capacity. This follows the recent award of a sample of moon rock from the Chang’e 5 lunar mission to the University of Hong Kong in August, the visit to Hong Kong in November of several taikonauts from the Chinese space program, and then, in December, of the domestically manufactured aircraft, the impressive Comac C919. This entered commercial service in May 2023 and could eventually give Boeing and Airbus a run for their money.

These initiatives intend to create local interest in the genuine opportunities these visits represent for us, and so to motivate Hong Kong’s active participation in national, cutting-edge, technological, and scientific endeavors. A key aim is also to inspire the city’s young minds to pursue careers in science and technology and to encourage its world-class universities to step up to the plate in aerospace, marine, and other high-tech disciplines. It is clear from recent pronouncements that China has a laserlike focus on science and technology as the twin pillars of activity that can protect and serve humanity. I would not be surprised if we soon had a visit from a real “sky taxi” flitting around Hong Kong! This follows the recent exciting news that the mainland-based air taxi developer EHang has just obtained mainland government certification to begin producing its passenger-carrying pilotless aircraft, the EH216-S. It looks a bit like a massive oversized drone and represents the first eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) flying machine in the world to obtain such regulatory validation. Perhaps soon, we can take affordable eVTOL hops from Lantau to Lamma and from Stanley to Sai Kung while a serious and practical role for such innovations across the entire Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area is foreseen — watch this space!

I do not believe the world can afford this current standoff on scientific cooperation and collaboration that the world desperately needs against a backdrop of what should be fair and healthy competition, whether on the ground, in space, or here, in our oceans

For now, though, I am concentrating on the Xue Long 2, a nearly 14,000-metric-ton ocean-going vessel. This wonderfully equipped scientific ship par excellence is at the vanguard of China’s research and supply interests in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. With a crew of 90, it can undertake two-month expeditions across the world’s oceans but with a clear focus on literally breaking the ice farther south. Xue Long 2 is a recognized world-class oceanographic scientific survey vessel that is kitted out with the latest monitoring and measurement equipment. This allows scientists to conduct polar research into such issues as biodiversity and local atmospheric and environmental conditions, and undertake oceanic resource investigations and assessments. On welcoming Xue Long 2 to Hong Kong, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu said the visit “would enhance Hong Kong people’s pride in China’s scientific achievements and inspire local youngsters to participate in scientific endeavors”. I can only agree.

As this vessel gets ready for its next journey south, this will be while there is still ice to break, given the increasingly scary impacts of climate change. Indeed, no other continent has experienced more temperature extremes than Antarctica. Here, record low sea ice in 2023 is setting alarm bells ringing in scientific circles and beyond and should be a concern for us all. Consequently, local “on the ice” research is essential. Indeed, “simply mind-boggling” is how climate scientists reacted back in 2022 to the most significant “world record” sudden jump of nearly 39 degrees C in the temperature recorded in this coldest place on Earth, even if it was a brief event.

This is yet another wake-up call for how we are entering unchartered waters, as it were, with such extreme climate excursions. This research vessel will play a vital scientific role in monitoring change in this remote, inhospitable, and yet still-pristine environment. Science-directed actions by humanity are needed more than ever to help us mitigate what is unfolding. We cannot do this alone, as we need concerted efforts to cooperate and collaborate internationally like never before! Nothing is more important, even as we are increasingly distracted by two concurrent vicious conflicts and increasingly polarized opinions that do nothing to progress common urgent interests like this. It is existential.

Interestingly, Xue Long 2 is very similar in size and capacity to the British 15,000-ton equivalent icebreaker, the RRS Sir David Attenborough. This was commissioned in 2018, only one year before Xue Long 2. Also interestingly, and showing just how open China is to win-win cooperation, the vessel was jointly designed by Finland’s Aker Arctic Technology in Helsinki and China’s Marine Design and Research Institute in Shanghai. How wonderful would it be for these two majestic vessels to undertake joint research and collaborative science missions in Antarctica and even have crew exchanges? Indeed, they even have the same crew size of scientists, engineers and operators. Perhaps this would enable more fresh “icebreaking” of “frozen” relationships between Western and Eastern polities. Frankly, I do not believe the world can afford this current standoff on scientific cooperation and collaboration that the world desperately needs against a backdrop of what should be fair and healthy competition, whether on the ground, in space, or here, in our oceans.

The author is director of the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.