Students returning to Hong Kong hope protest violence will stop so they can start studying again in peace

Fiona Sun

Postgraduate student Reddy from India hopes to return to a calm campus when the new term starts at the University of Hong Kong later this month, after a winter of violent anti-government protests.

Peace has been largely restored at the Pok Fu Lam campus, and posters and graffiti bearing pro-democracy messages scrawled all over the campus have been mostly erased. Security checks at entrances are tight, with only students and staff allowed in.

Reddy, 21, who asked to be identified only by his surname, says he chose to come to Hong Kong two years ago because of the city’s high academic standards and its international flavour.

But a wave of demonstrations and violence on campus have disrupted his studies and made him worried about personal safety. His family back home question his decision to return.

Chinese University has estimated it will cost HK$70 million to repair its Sha Tin campus after it was trashed by anti-government protesters. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

“They are worried about me, and they ask, ‘why did you choose this particular place over elsewhere?’” he says. “I did not know it when I chose to study here. I did not know that I signed up for this.”

The city’s universities will start welcoming back students next week, including 18,060 non-local students enrolled in the city’s eight universities funded by the University Grants Committee. They account for about 18 per cent of the total student population.

Most non-local students come from mainland China, at 12,322 in the 2018-2019 academic year, followed by 1,479 from South Korea, 731 from Taiwan, 669 from India, 565 from Indonesia, 406 from Malaysia, statistics show. A total of 108 students come from the United States, while 34 students are from Britain.

Apart from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the political turmoil, which has engulfed the city for nearly seven months, has also spilled over to Chinese University (CUHK), Baptist University, City University (CityU), Polytechnic University (PolyU), and the University of Science and Technology (HKUST). CUHK has estimated it will cost HK$70 million (US$8.9 million) to repair the campus, while CityU has said its bill will run into nine figures.

Violent incidents on campuses in November forced universities to cancel classes or end the semester early. Violence at CUHK and PolyU forced non-local students to flee.

The Education Bureau says it does not keep statistics on the number of non-local students who have dropped out. According to CityU, some have decided to cancel their exchange programmes for the new semester which will start on January 13, while other universities say the number of non-local students who have dropped out is similar to previous years.

All six universities have increased the number of security personnel, and at PolyU, the site of a 13-day stand-off between radicals and police, a dedicated task force has been set up to ensure the security of the campus.

I think the new term will be much better than the last one, maybe with only small-scale protests

Zhou, a Chinese University doctoral student

Hong Kong is a magnet for non-local students

Hong Kong is home to some of the world’s best universities. Three Hong Kong universities ranked among the global top 50 in 2019 QS World University Rankings: HKU fared best in 25th place, while HKUST came 37th, and CUHK came 49th.

The number of non-local students at Hong Kong universities has been increasing over the past five years, from 15,151 in 2014-2015, to 18,060 in 2018-2019.

Damithri Melagoda, a 27-year-old HKU doctoral student in construction management from Sri Lanka, says she was thrilled to be accepted by the city’s oldest university – which has the largest non-local student population among all universities, at more than 4,500.

“Although I did not know the city very well, I knew its education system and the university ranking are very good,” she says.

Education Bureau accuses Hong Kong teachers’ union of inciting ‘white terror’

Apart from the reputable education system, the international city, with a diverse culture and wide use of English, is appealing to non-local students. The city’s close relationship with mainland China also attracts many.

“Hong Kong is one of the most advanced and mature financial hubs in Asia, and it is a portal for foreigners to enter mainland China,” says Reddy, who chose Hong Kong over Singapore and London.

Protests add to the list of challenges facing non-local students

Hong Kong’s high cost of living, the language barrier and cultural differences are well recognised challenges.

But protests have disrupted their studies, and left them fearing for their safety.

Mainland doctoral student Zhou, 28, will return to CUHK on January 6, when the new term begins. Asking to be identified by only his surname, he says he expects a calmer and friendlier campus where he can devote himself to his research.

The MTR station serving the Sha Tin campus was closed for more than a month after protesters vandalised it, while the campus itself was the scene of intense clashes between radicals and police.

For me as a non-local student, I feel my interests have been hurt because I came here purely to study

Celeste, a master’s student at HKU

“Everything seems to have returned to normal,” he says. “I think the new term will be much better than the last one, maybe with only small-scale protests. But still it is too early to say so, and unexpected things do happen.”

CUHK was one of the worst-hit campuses, occupied by radical protesters for four days in November. Protesters threw petrol bombs, bricks and other objects, while the police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds.

Many of the university’s more than 3,800 non-local students, including those from Taiwan and South Korea, fled the campus. A group of mainland students left the campus by police boat on November 13.

Mass arrests and violence: no end in sight for Hong Kong protests in 2020

Zhou travelled to neighbouring Shenzhen after being persuaded to leave by his worried parents.

“We felt heartbroken to see our campus turn into chaos,” he says.

Reddy also went home for a week in November, after protesters at HKU set fire to the MTR station, barricaded the campus gates, and threw petrol bombs from a footbridge at people trying to clear the roads. He says more than half of his 70 classmates left the city.

The violence on campuses forced universities to cancel graduation ceremonies, suspend the semester early and resort to online teaching. But students say live-streaming classes or uploading materials online was ineffective.

Celeste, a master’s student at HKU, says the university should have had better arrangements for non-local students who pay for school and accommodation. The 23-year-old from mainland China says she paid HK$76,000 in tuition last semester, and a monthly rent of HK$5,300.

A group of students have drafted a list of proposals for the university, including a cut in tuition fees or reimbursement of the costs inflicted by protests, she says.

A wall bearing the University of Hong Kong crest has the phrase, “Inherit the past aspiration, to light the fire of the Revolution,

Campus activism is normal, but not violence

Despite the disruptions, Celeste says it is inevitable to see social movements at universities.

“For me as a non-local student, I feel my interests have been hurt because I came here purely to study,” she says. “But for local students, universities are more than just places to study, but also where they can participate in society.”

Melagoda, who will start her second term at HKU on January 20, says as she does not know much about the city’s history, she respects the rights of others to express their thoughts, except for the violence and disruption.

“It is good to have politics on campus, but to some extent,” she says.

Stay or go? Hong Kong’s international students pack their bags amid protest chaos

American student Spencer Patrick, a master’s student in geology at HKU, says universities, not only in Hong Kong but around the world, are places for people to express political ideas.

“Universities are places where young people find themselves politically and socially,” the 22-year-old says. “They are a nexus for political debates.”

Holding a more positive attitude, he says witnessing the city’s political unrest offers him an important life experience.

Stay or go?

Non-local students can apply to stay and work in Hong Kong under the Immigration Arrangements for Non-local Graduates (IANG). Those who live in the city for seven years or more can apply for permanent residency.

The Immigration Department approved 10,150 applications under IANG in 2018, including 9,206 from mainland applicants, statistics show. From January to September last year, a total of 9,296 applications were approved, according to the latest figures from the department.

‘Teachers in protest-linked misconduct should be punished to ensure pupils’ interests’

Mainland student Zhou says he plans to return home in east China after completing his doctoral studies in three years. He is discouraged by the political turmoil, along with the city’s hectic lifestyle and the distance he feels from the local populace because of language and cultural barriers, he says.

But Reddy still wants to give it a try in Hong Kong. With only one semester left before graduating in June, he has started looking for a job in the city’s developed finance sector.

“Hong Kong’s job market is open to foreigners. The good reputation of Hong Kong universities and their experienced, resourceful faculty will definitely help in terms of jobs,” he says.

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