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Why Hong Kong and Chinese Students don't talk politics

Are universities failing to protect the free speech of pro-Hong Kong students?
By Brendan Duggan
illustration by Brodie Murray

Hong Kong students living and studying in the UK are almost six thousand miles from home, where protesters the same age, fight on the streets against the police and against their own government. Jackie, 26, a former student at the University of Edinburgh, watched as his fellow citizens were bombarded with tear-gassed, beaten and arrested. This is why he decided to start a protest of his own. 

 

The protest was set to take place on Princes Street in front of the famous Iron Duke: “We mainly wanted to raise awareness and show some solidarity to the people in Hong Kong” Jackie explained. 

 

What Jackie and his friends, who call their group, “Democracy for Hong Kong In Scotland”, would soon find out, is that they wouldn’t have to watch the battle for Hong Kong from afar. The fight would come to them, right on the streets of Edinburgh. 

 

Another student at the protests was M, 25, from mainland China and also studying at Edinburgh University. M came with his own sign saying he was from Mainland China and that he supported Hong Kong.

 

M is one of over 120 thousand Chinese students in the UK. Chinese and Hong Kong students make up 35% of all non-EU students in the UK.

 

The group's plan was to hand out flyers informing the Scottish people about the extradition bill and the police brutality that was going on in Hong Kong. As soon as they started however, they were swarmed by pro-Regime Chinese students.

 

“We stood as a group, held up some signs and and posters and those Chinese students were standing in front of us. Then they started to chant.” Jackie described.

Footage of the confrontation shows the small group surrounded by a large counter-protest, holding up the bright red flag of the Chinese communist party, chanting and shouting in Mandarin. M described the crowd as, “very loud and rather threatening. And very well organised.” 

 

The crowd was chanting for the protesters to take off your masks: “For obvious reasons, along with the symbolism, we have all wore a mask. I remember I was visibly shaking at the time, and we were all holding hands together,” M remembers.

 

M, like many Chinese students, fears being reported to the Chinese embassy by nationalist groups and students in the city. 

 

 

 

In China, described by political scientists as an “authoritarian state”, it is illegal to publicly speak out or say anything to discredit the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese internet is heavily censored to take down any opposing views and those who do so face severe consequences. As of 2020, this affects Hong Kongers as well. Numerous Chinese students have told the me that they dare not speak about their political beliefs to anyone they do not fully trust. 

 

Eventually, the protest got so intense that police had to separate both sides but this didn’t stop M from getting lots of attention for his sign. 

 

“There was a group of students that came to me and asked questions, and after a bit they demanded I take off my mask and said I was a coward,” M said.

 

Surrounded by other Chinese students, yelling and calling him a traitor and overwhelmed with anger M couldn’t control himself and took off his mask. A counter-protester immediately took a photo of his face and ran away. 

 

M’s face would be shared online until a popular Chinese social media influencer would open the floodgates when he asked his followers on the popular mainland Chinese app 'Weibo', to target M and give him a “proper welcome” when he gets back to China. When M discovered the post, it already had over 10 thousand likes. 

 

After this M saw other threats to his life: “sentencing me to hang, along with all my family.” A post provided to the me shows a Scottish Chinese student writing, “brothers, if you see him, beat him to death.” M's family was also visited and given written warnings by police in China. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hong Konger Sammi, aged 21, who studies at the University of Glasgow, was also targeted by Chinese nationalist students for putting pro-democracy wording on his front door at his student accommodation last October.

 

“At midnight, I found some Chinese students stealthily sticking Chinese flags on my flat door. So I came out and confronted them. I asked them what they were doing. They kept avoiding my question and saying ‘let’s celebrate Chinese national day’ in Mandarin.”

 

Later a Chinese friend showed him screenshots from a chatroom which showed Chinese students texting,“sacrifice them to the god in Chinese national day” and “I have an extra suitcase that can fit two thin bodies.”  

 

A Facebook post in August 2019 made by the Glasgow Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA), shows the group organising the counter-protest which led to M and Jackie being surrounded by Chinese supporters. The post writes that CSSA students can gather and “support China and demonstrate Chinese nationalism" and to "prevent undesirable people from getting into the group."

 

We reached out to CSSA but they refused to be interviewed or comment for this story.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These incidents raise concerns over how China's security law could affect academic freedom and the free speech of foreign students not just in the classroom but socially as well. In Scotland, Chinese students provide a £195 Million in fees to Scottish Universities, raising concerns that these financial contributions may make those universities hesitant to take action. 

 

M contacted the University of Edinburgh to report the incident but according to M, the University never followed up or looked into the matter. 

 

The University of Edinburgh told us that: “Student safety and wellbeing is the University’s top priority” and that “We have been monitoring events in Hong Kong closely, with University staff providing help and support to students affected."

 

The Edinburgh University Student Union also commented saying: “We are extremely saddened and disappointed to hear that students from China and Hong Kong have experienced harassment and abuse in response to their views on the political situation in Hong Kong. We would urge any students who would like to report cases of harassment or abuse, or seek support to get in touch with our Advice Place.”

 

Chinese and Hong Kong students, however, don't feel safe speaking to their University. “The university has done nothing in their support,” M explains. “Not just that, many don't even dare bring up the matter to the university.” 

 

Other universities such as the University of Oxford have asked students who are specialising in the study of China, to submit papers anonymously and not to tape their classes. Teaching staff in Australia are taking similar precautions after Hong Kong student applications hit a three year high.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The UK Foreign Affair Select Committee said that universities have to be aware of the risks to freedom of speech and potential espionage. “The need for universities to attract more funding and grow internationally can come into conflict with the principles of academic freedom.” the Committee stated. 

Former Hong Kong Governor and now the Chancellor of Oxford University says that the anxieties around Chinese influence in universities is something to be concerned about.

 

"It's a difficult situation for them.” Lord Patten says, “that's being created by the Chinese Communist Party with the National Security Law. Our universities have to be very, very aware of this and very tough in dealing with any examples of persecuting Hong Kong students or other Chinese mainland students because of their views."

 

Dr Neil Munro teaches Chinese politics at Glasgow University and says he would be surprised if there wasn’t a connection with “pro-regime activist groups and the Chinese security state” but does not believe that his university would fail to act against bullying and harassment. 

 

Eric Saude, an academic who has taught in Macau and Hong Kong and sued his university in Macau for firing him over his political views says, “academic freedom will never really be great” in countries where the national security law can be imposed. 

 

Students like Jackie, M and Sammi all come to the UK to study and to share ideas and cultures. However, they will never feel they can share those ideas if they constantly live in fear.

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“Brothers in Chengdu, if you see him, beat him to death."

“academic freedom will never really be great” in countries where the national security law can be imposed.

Pro-Regime activists gather and surround the Hong Kong protesters 

Pro-Regime counter protesters shout "take off your masks"

Chinese Students make up 35% of all non-EU students. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

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