Tensions between students rising amid ongoing protests

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Originally published by University World News in September 12, 2019

As students in Hong Kong started the academic year with a class boycott, students from mainland China studying in the city’s universities have been uncertain about expressing an opinion about the protests that have gripped the city and are now entering their fourth month. 

As the protests have continued – which began in opposition to a now retracted bill to extradite criminals to the mainland but have now morphed into a general protest against erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms separate from the Party-controlled system on the Chinese mainland – a few mainland students have openly assailed their Hong Kong classmates, causing tensions on campuses, while others quietly support the democracy movement but do not speak out for fear of retribution if they travel back to the mainland.

Woo Kowk-wan, the acting president of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University students’ union, was recently struck in the face by a mainland student who yelled: “Why can’t I beat you if you throw petrol bombs at others?”

On 2 September a young man in a red T-shirt stormed the stage set up as part of the class boycott at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and tore down a banner emblazoned with a protest slogan. 

“I am a Chinese! You don’t deserve to be in university!” the man shouted while showing his Chinese passport. He was bundled from the stage. 

In July a mainland alumnus of the City University of Hong Kong was arrested for tearing down anti-extradition posters. Another mainlander named as Wang Xizhao was found guilty on 6 September of criminal damage at the same university and was ordered to pay a fine. Wang said he was irritated by some of the postings on the campus ‘democracy wall’ and had submitting a medical report that indicated he suffered from anxiety. 

Academics say tensions have been rising on campuses since the protests started in June. “Obviously there is tension between mainland students and local students; I’m not going to deny that,” Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication, told University World News in August.

“It’s not all mainland students and obviously not all local students, but there is some tension going on right now,” Tsui said. 

Democracy walls vandalised

Violence or open confrontation has been rare, but several universities noted that posters on campus ‘democracy walls’ have been vandalised “and not by outsiders”, said a student at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). 

In July HKU students were angered when mainland students tore down posters that criticised the university’s mainland-born vice-chancellor, Zhang Xiang, for not openly supporting the students protesting the bill to extradite criminals to China, which sparked the protests in June, and for publicly condemning the storming of the Hong Kong legislature on 1 July, when students occupied the chamber and defaced Chinese Communist Party symbols.  

In a letter to the HKU council dated 15 July, purportedly representing some 200 mainland students at the university, they complained of being unable to express their opinions “via normal channels” and accused the university’s student union of “intimidating speeches and bullying behaviours”. 

“As a minority group, we do feel great pressure in expressing our voices. Yet, as rational and conscient humans, we must speak out and make our stance crystal clear that no form of violence, including language violence, should be tolerated in our campus,” said the letter signed by a “a group of non-local students who care about campus justice and the reputation of the university”. 

HKU has some 3,000 mainland students or 15% of the student body – the number of mainlanders is officially capped at 15% of the total, but it has the largest number at an individual institution followed by CUHK with around 2,890 mainlanders, according to figures from Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee. 

Overall Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities have around 12,221 mainland students in a student body of 100,000. 

Polarising opinions

“Opinions between mainlanders and local students have become polarised,” said one HKU student, who noted that Hong Kong students tended to be united in opposition to the extradition bill and the way the Hong Kong government has handled the issue. 

“We try not to put them in a position where they have to take a stand, but it is not easy [for them] to support Hong Kong democracy either,” she said, noting that some mainland students were afraid of repercussions when they get back to China or of being reported by other mainland students.  

She pointed to violent altercations between mainland and Hong Kong students at university campuses in Australia – notably at the University of Queensland campus in Brisbane in July – and in Canada, such as at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. 

But “things are different here”, the student said. “We Hong Kong students are in the front line of action here and our passions are strong. We are fighting for our identity. And that identity is different from the mainland identity.

“It is not like being far away in Australia or Canada. Here, if mainland students try to be neutral it can seem as if they are opposing us.”

Broad spectrum of views

Another HKU student acknowledged that the views of mainland students could be varied, and agreed all mainlanders should not be tarred with the same brush. “Of course, it is the aggressive ones that we notice most, but they do not represent all the mainland students.”

recent survey of 488 mainland students at HKU found that 40% thought Hong Kong police used excessive force against protesters. But only 16% agreed the protests are driven by foreign forces rather than the people’s will – a key strand of Beijing’s line on the protests. And only 37% agreed the protests are caused by economic rather than political grievances, another argument espoused by official mainland media. 

WeChat (Chinese social media) poll conducted up to 27 July among 464 mainland students in Hong Kong, mostly undergraduates at CUHK, also found a broad political spectrum of views.

The poll came after huge peaceful marches against the extradition bill had started splintering into multiple actions with a wider set of grievances, including against police action but before police violence against protesters on the mass transit railway system seen in early September. 

Some 37% of the mainland students agreed the police used excessive force during ongoing protests, while 32% were of the opposite opinion. 

Around a quarter agreed with the protesters’ five demands, among them for the Hong Kong government to retract the extradition bill (which it did on 4 September), investigate police handling of the protests and release all protesters. 

Around 27% of the mainland students polled in Hong Kong said the protests made them more pro-democracy. 

Mainland students risk more

A CUHK student active in the front line of the protests, who uses the pseudonym Brian, told University World News he knew of some mainland students who have joined the bigger protests. “It is true the mainland students face more risk. What if they are arrested? They could have problems back in China if they are seen to support us.”

“We rarely hear from those on the mainland who support the pro-democracy movement,” said Frances Eve, deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) , a coalition of Chinese and international human rights groups.

“The Chinese government is working overtime to threaten and detain mainlanders from sharing and commenting on the protests in Hong Kong for fear of what it may spark back home,” Eve wrote in a blogpost this week. 

“Many mainlanders who are supportive of Hong Kongers’ fight for democratic rights and exercise of freedom of expression have had their comments removed from the internet, are threatened by police, and some have been taken away for speaking out.”

Brian said he himself was born on the mainland and came to Hong Kong as a child. He has family in China’s Guangdong province, which borders on Hong Kong. “They do not understand this at all. They would be appalled if they know what I and my friends are doing. They are oil, I am water,” he says using the Hong Kong protesters’ slogan “be water” or move around the city with spontaneous protests. 

HKU’s student union said in a statement on 24 August that it had received complaints that HKU students “were forced to unlock their mobile devices which were subsequently subjected to scrutiny by Chinese authorities”, and called on the university to protect students. 

So far no student has been detained or punished but mainland activists who support the Hong Kong protests within China have been, according to CHRD. 

Universities less appealing for mainlanders?

China’s official Global Times newspaper has reported that Hong Kong universities are losing their appeal for mainland students because of the ongoing unrest, prompting some students with offers from Hong Kong universities not to take them up or defer entry “over safety concerns”.

“Students and parents are also concerned that the quality of teaching at Hong Kong universities will be affected by the political chaos,” said the usually strident tabloid newspaper, quoting a consultant from overseas study service agency New Oriental Vision Overseas Consulting as saying the number of prospective students seeking information on studying in Hong Kong had fallen sharply since June.

Some have applied elsewhere overseas while a few are trying to defer entry to wait for a safer time to go to Hong Kong, it said.

It cited one student who received messages from friends and relatives as she was about to fly to Hong Kong to start the semester. “They advised me to delay my journey, but I was all ready to fly to Hong Kong.”

To comfort her worried parents, she promised to stay away from crowds and carry an alarm with her wherever she went. 

Another mainland student said her parents advised her “not to get lured by the radical protesters and not to get involved in the demonstrations”. She says she prepared herself by joining a WeChat group of other mainlanders about to study in Hong Kong. 

It was clear that compared to previous cohorts of mainland students, the current cohort “would have more to watch out for, such as how to avoid the assemblies”, the newspaper reported.  

But it is not yet evident that mainland students are avoiding Hong Kong’s highly ranked universities. A spokesperson from HKU said: “Our enrolments this year are robust. Similar to previous years, over 700 non-local students have been admitted to our undergraduate programmes; about half of them are from mainland China and half from overseas, and they account for about 20% of the total number of undergraduate students admitted for 2019-20.”

“As for postgraduate students, we have a wide variety of research and taught postgraduate programmes. Enrolments are not finalised yet; we don’t have the figures available yet for 2019-20.”

A CUHK spokesperson said: “The number of mainland applicants who declined an offer this year is more or less the same as that of previous years. Reasons are varied and applicants are not required to provide reasons for declining offers.”

The university said it was trying to embrace differences and develop mutual understanding and respect, and has established policies to protect the rights of all students including their right of expression. “The university has been in close contact with non-local student bodies to understand their needs and concerns and to provide them with the necessary support.”

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