Living Through Hong Kong’s Protests: The International Student Perspective

Pro-democracy protests have gripped Hong Kong since June. These protests initially began in opposition against a bill which proposed extradition to mainland China. While this bill was withdrawn in September, protests have continued with broader calls for democracy and police accountability. These protests fall within Hong Kong’s complex history, formerly a British colony until 1997 and now technically part of China. Hong Kong operates within the “one country, two systems” structure, meaning that Hong Kong’s people experience greater rights and freedoms than in China. Last week, following months of increasingly violent protests and clashes with police, local council elections in Hong Kong showed overwhelming support for pro-democracy movements, with the election of pro-democracy councillors in 17 out of the 18 districts.

I spoke to Bianca Bucuroiu just after these local council elections. Bianca is an International Relations student at the University of Exeter who is currently on her year abroad at Hong Kong University. She arrived in Hong Kong just as the airport was shut down by pro-democracy protestors, and since then, her year abroad experience has been marked by the continued protests. Young people have largely led the protests, and Bianca says her university, Hong Kong U, is particularly political. It is “known for being the protester university”, and “some of the students on campus were very active in all of the protests… [they] would gather in the middle of campus and they would chant the protestors’ anthem and the Hong Kong’s anthem as well.”

Bianca also describes the physical signs of pro-democracy support, as on one of the main areas of campus “they had a wall with a bunch of flyers, cartoons, posters, memes about the protests and then the students’ union room was also full of ‘propaganda’.” Bianca tells me how the on-campus protests developed as “some of the students occupied the campus to some extent, they had a lot of supplies, big bags of food…they spent the night on campus and some of them had put up road barriers… trying to block the access into campus…to protect themselves from the police if they ever came, which they did not.” However, she highlights that “it was peaceful…nothing really scary or dangerous happened.” It seems they were lucky because “in other universities they would not be as flexible, but the University had a very open mind, so they were obviously advocating freedom of speech and plurality of opinions.”

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13/11/2019
Protesters prepare for an occupation of Hong Kong University
Original Photo Courtesy of Bianca Bucuroiu

Outside of the University campus, Bianca says that as an international you’re mostly safe if you stay away from the areas of protest. She explains that the new territories on the other side of the island have been most badly affected, as protestors “blocked the roads and the tunnels and the bridges to go to the other side… tried to block any access to the continent or the island on both sides.” At lunchtimes, “a lot of people would just go out in the central business districts (CBD) to protest, but it was quite peaceful,” and even when it escalated, “it’s in areas that I would not usually go to.” She has seen some larger scale protests, but has luckily avoided any violence: “I have seen the police and I have seen some pretty big masses of people with masks on and with black t-shirts, but I’ve never seen any tear gas fired at people or any bricks being thrown at protesters or at the police… yes they did smash the windows of Starbucks and Chinese banks, but I’ve never seen that happen in front of me, I just saw the aftermath of it.” She asserts that the media creates a skewed perception of the situation, that they “wanted to sensationalise what was happening…trying to make it seem like Hong Kong is a war zone.” While “there have been some pretty violent clashes… as long as you don’t go near that, you’ll be fine…I’ve never felt really unsafe.”

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13/11/2019
Protesters gather supplies for an occupation of Hong Kong University: basic necessities and protections against a potential police raid.
Original Photo Courtesy of Bianca Bucuroiu

Bianca says for international students, “most of us have seen them [the protests] from afar or were taking pictures and videos to document because it’s truly a historical moment,” but it’s rare for internationals to become directly involved. “Some people wanted to go to have an idea of what it was really like,” but “I only know of one or two who actually went into the crowd and they said that it was a life-changing experience.” However, she thinks that “after being here for a couple of months, you have a pretty good grasp of what’s going on and it’s definitely not your place to get involved, most students would stay out of it.” Bianca believes that while “a lot of people support this idea of Hong Kong being independent and having this pro-democracy movement… it really is up to the people of Hong Kong.”

With protests across the city and University, two weeks ago Hong Kong U, like many other universities in the city, decided to cancel its classes for the rest of the semester. Bianca explains that they made the decision for safety reasons, as to travel to campus “would essentially compromise their safety.” There was also some risk on campus itself, especially as for a couple of days there were “clashes on campus of someone who threw a chair at a passer-by and other people were throwing bricks…they [the University] didn’t want to have to either be responsible for any casualties, and at the same time they had this moral responsibility of making sure that students were still… safe.” She said some international students found it particularly hard, and she felt “sorry for them” because they “really felt the danger… some people really did feel uncomfortable,” especially those who “were not really accustomed to Hong Kong yet.” Given this climate, Bianca thinks it was best for the University to give them “the option to continue their studies at home,” they didn’t want “to force them to stay in an environment that would make them feel uncomfortable, not welcoming.”

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Protest in Causeway Bay District, Hong Kong
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However, Bianca herself has made the decision to remain in Hong Kong. She believes that in many ways it would feel more disruptive for her to leave: “I had already planned my whole stay. I have a lease here, I have a phone contract, I have family friends and other friends in Hong Kong, so I don’t feel like I’m on my own.” Also, on a practical level, she still has exams to complete which would be more difficult in a different time zone as they tend to be released online at 9 or 10 am Hong Kong time. Even if semester two does not go ahead, her back-up option is work experience in Hong Kong. Bianca stresses that she is aware of her privilege in deciding to stay. While for her “interrupting this in the middle of our year…was not the right decision”, she “understand[s] that I am privileged because I have been able to find a place where I am safe, in a really good neighbourhood, to have a lease that is secured until the end of the year, and to have parents that support me to the extent that I can go travelling whenever I want, that I can book a flight whenever I want…I understand that for some people it might not be as easy… I understand that not everyone has the chance to be this flexible and to make the decision to stay, and that for some people the best decision was to go home where they feel most comfortable.”

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07/07/2019
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Bianca praises University of Exeter for how they have supported their students in Hong Kong. She says that while they “at first said they would strongly urge us to go home, since then they’ve reviewed their stance.” The University has tried to organise other options for second semester, such as transferring to a different international university or undertaking an internship. Alongside these options, “they’ve said, if you want to go home, we’ll arrange stuff, we’ll reimburse you all of the travelling costs. If you want to stay, please be careful, and if you want to go somewhere else next semester, please let us know”. Bianca says it was difficult because often they were given 24-hours to decide if they wanted to move to a different country for their second semester, but that she “appreciate[s] the work that they’ve done,” especially in making sure students felt fully supported in their decision.

Bianca believes Exeter dealt with the situation better than other universities, as many international students had little flexibility: “a lot of universities decided to just tell their students to come home, some of them didn’t have a choice, they just said we’ll put you on the next flight, you have to come home.” She says that alongside concerns for safety, insurance and money came into it as “some universities arranged some pretty flexible insurance policies, some of them did not…some students were quite upset and felt that some universities wanted to essentially have their money back, make sure that they did not have to be financially responsible which is understandable. But when you’re a student caught in the middle of that and your academics are obviously the priority, it’s hard to accept that.”

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11/11/2019
Road block assembled by protesters
Original Photo Courtesy of Bianca Bucuroiu

With many students faced with no other option but to leave Hong Kong, Bianca found that “within a week I would say a big majority of the people I knew, my friends, were gone”. She explains the emotional impact of this: “It was definitely hard to process not seeing all of these friends again [who] you’ve made memories with throughout the whole of semester, especially because exchange students really stuck with one another and we would see each other all the time, we got used to that. We had our little safe space, our home away from home, so to have that taken away from us in addition to the fact that our real home where our real family is on the other side of the world is definitely hard, it was really hard to adjust.”

Bianca hopes that now, especially since the elections, things in Hong Kong are calming down. “In terms of day to day life it’s definitely going better,” she explains, “for the time being there’s definitely been less violence and less clashes with the police.” She hopes this will continue, and “now that the protestors have official political support, they think it will probably be easier to try to put pressure on the pro-Beijing law makers, especially when it’s going to come down to the chief executive elections.”

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31/10/2019
Demonstration in CBD: Protesters wear masks in defiance against the new anti-mask law
Original Photo Courtesy of Bianca Bucuroiu

But Bianca’s still realistic about the situation, as “there’s still a lot of uncertainty and just because the elections went really well doesn’t mean that the situation will stay like this.” She describes the “eerie sense of calm” over the election weekend when there were no protests, “it sounds really sad, but it was weird for it to be calm… it was kind of enjoyable but at the same time it was weird because we know that they [the protestors] were pausing this for a weekend.” She also acknowledges that Hong Kong’s future is not just determined by “the domestic political conditions but also the international situation,” particularly China’s relationship with the US.

However, on a personal level Bianca is glad that “we have Exeter’s support, we have consular support, diplomatic support if need be, so I think that it will get better.” Most significantly, she wants to emphasise that Hong Kong is still a great place. “Whilst I’m not a local…and it was my first time in Hong Kong, after a semester of being here and after such an intense couple of weeks, I feel that I have the right to say that Hong Kong is safe, Hong Kong is good, and also not to deter anyone from coming to Hong Kong … Hong Kong is still a wonderful city.”

Katrina Bennett

 

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