Students in City University of Hong Kong Photo: Courtesy of Ken Liang

When Evelyn Li (pseudonym,) flew to Hong Kong several days before the start of her new semester at university, she found that the student orientation welcoming ceremony had been canceled due to the current situation in the region.

The 22-year-old woman was also issued with a security guide from her university, telling her that it will be safe for the students in school and expressed hope that everyone could attend class in an orderly manner.

Since China resumed exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, the coastal city, one of China’s Special Administration Regions, has attracted many students from the Chinese mainland to study there. In the past few months, however, illegal assemblies and violent attacks carried out by radical protesters have plunged the city into chaos.

And the crisis has already had an effect on schools. On September 2, the day which marked a new semester for many universities in Hong Kong, many students participated in a boycott of lessons.

Before she left, Li had heard news that there might be a student boycott that day, causing her to begin to worry about her personal safety. She believes that the teaching order should not be disrupted by the riots in Hong Kong, which she saw as a safe place to live and study in.

Filled with both hopes and worries, students from the mainland like Li left home to start a new life in Hong Kong amidst the chaos of the past few months. 

Packing under advice

After specially packing some brightly colored clothes into a suitcase, Li prepared to leave home and pursue her graduate studies in Hong Kong. “Some posts on the internet read that wearing black might get you into trouble,” she said.

This summer, radical protesters wearing black organized illegal rallies and destroyed the social order.

Another student of the same age named Zhang Xiaocheng (pseudonym) flew to Hong Kong two weeks before the start of the new semester for the same purpose. She bought an alarm online that would attract people’s attention if she ever found herself in a dangerous situation.

As her flight date got closer, she received messages from many of her friends and relatives. “They advised me to delay my journey, but I was all ready to fly to Hong Kong,” she said, adding, “Too many things have happened this summer and the situation there remains grim.” To comfort her worried parents, she promised to stay away from crowds and carry the alarm with her wherever she went.

Li experienced something similar. On top of their daughter’s safety, her parents have another concern. “They advised me not to get lured by the radical protesters, and not get involved in the demonstrations,” she said.

To prepare herself as much as possible, she updated herself on the situation in Hong Kong through the internet and joined a WeChat group, communicating with other students who will study in Hong Kong about matters that need special attention. Compared with previous students, they would have more to watch out for, such as how to avoid the assemblies.

Before September, some media outlets reported that the Hong Kong secessionists were preparing for student boycotts for the coming semester. “Universities are for pursuing knowledge, not for political struggles,” Li said.


Campus clashes

The youth of Hong Kong have played a major role in the summer-long protests. According to a report by Inkstone News, the ongoing protests have already influenced universities in Hong Kong. Controversy erupted at the University of Hong Kong between some local and mainland students after Zhang Xiang, the president of the school, publicly condemned the violent storming of Hong Kong’s legislature on July 4.

“Some young people in Hong Kong know less about the mainland. In their eyes, policies are unstable and economic development is lagging,” said Ken Liang (pseudonym,) 22. Growing up in a city in South China’s Guangdong Province, he goes to Hong Kong almost twice a month to meet friends and relatives and has visited Hong Kong several times on inter-varsity exchange programs.

“The youngsters may not understand the mainland and it seems that they have ignored the help that the mainland has offered to Hong Kong while magnifying its negative aspects, so it’s easy for them to be misguided,” Li said.

Building bridges

Like Liang and Li, many students from the mainland are attracted to Hong Kong and apply to study there.

Hong Kong, China’s first SAR, is different from the mainland in both economic and political systems under the “one country, two systems” principle. Since 1997, it has become a major hub for Chinese trade with the outside world.

According to the QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) World University Rankings, in 2019, three universities from Hong Kong made it to the top 50 list, and the mainland also has three listed.

“There, you will have schoolmates and teachers from all around the world and the curriculum system is quite similar to that in Britain,” Liang said.

Li was attracted to the multicultural atmosphere of Hong Kong, which combines traditional Chinese culture and the cultures of other countries. Studying Chinese culture, she expects to learn more in Hong Kong and hopes to find her ideal job when she graduates a year from now. “However, the turmoil that Hong Kong is going through will ruin its society,” she said.

Despite their worries about the situation, they all flew to Hong Kong and have already started their new lives there.

“I still have confidence in Hong Kong. Separatists are only a minority, and most Hongkongers love it,” Liang said. He still remembers his experience going on an exchange program to Hong Kong when he was a sophomore. The members of the Hanfu (Han-style traditional costumes) society of his school went to a university in Hong Kong to perform Hanfu shows. Liang was responsible for taking photos for them and recording the event as a correspondent.

After the weeklong cultural exchange, the Hong Kong students told Liang that they were very happy and surprised to see that many students from the mainland like Hanfu. “And we felt pleased that they approved of us,” said Liang.

Students are a major component of people-to-people exchanges between the mainland and Hong Kong. According to a report released by the Hong Kong Audit Commission, early in 2016, mainland students made up 76 percent of non-local university students in Hong Kong.

And there were various kinds of activities, including cultural events and sports, between schools from the two sides. 

“It’s a good way for young people to know more about each other,” Liang said, and hopes that he can try his best as a student to help his local classmates know more about the mainland. 

Li sees the year of study in Hong Kong as a good chance to cultivate deeper communication with local young people. “Communication can improve mutual understanding between the two sides,” she said, adding that she believes calm will return to Hong Kong soon.