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Students from Hong Kong, mainland China reflect on safety amid protests

Students express frustration with muted campus discourse over Hong Kong protests

Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Protests in Hong Kong that originated about a bill that has since been withdrawn continue to escalate. University students express concern and frustration over the current environment on campus.

Over the past several months, protests in Hong Kong have escalated, and violent interactions between protesters and police have become more frequent. The protests originated against a bill proposed earlier this year that would allow people accused of crimes in Hong Kong to be extradited to China. The Herald spoke with four students from Hong Kong and three students from mainland China, who recounted safety concerns and frustration with campus discourse.

Protests spark safety concerns

The Hong Kong protests have had a direct impact on the lives of many of the students with whom the The Herald spoke. A graduate student from Hong Kong, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals and whom The Herald will refer to as Chris, has a fiancee living in Hong Kong.

The couple has considered getting married earlier or having Chris’s fiancee leave Hong Kong before the situation becomes even more dangerous. “Every day I check to see that my fiancee is safe,” Chris said. “Sometimes it can get quite distracting seeing those live broadcasts. Those are the areas we live in or used to walk past everyday. … That constant anxious and worrying feeling is the biggest effect … especially for overseas people.”

Chris’s parents also live in Hong Kong. “I’m worried about their safety,” Chris said. His parents are trying to move out of Hong Kong but are having “huge difficulties” finding a buyer for their home.

An undergraduate student from Hong Kong, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals and whom The Herald will refer to as Peter, said his family is also thinking of migrating. “They don’t know where Hong Kong is going. They are very worried for their future,” he said.

Peter recounted a time over the summer when police officers tear-gassed his bus stop. No longer able to wait there for his usual bus, he “had to call (his) dad to drive out” and bring him home.

Another day that “really affected” Peter was when about “75 percent of the Metro was shut down.” On his way to work, he said, “the trains couldn’t move for three hours, and there were no buses (and) no other forms of transportation, so I just went home. … There were fifty or so protesters in the Metro station sitting inside the train, on the platform, in between the gaps, preventing the train from moving.”

Another undergraduate student from Hong Kong, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals and whom The Herald will refer to as Liz, shared this sense of uncertainty and pessimism about the future. Hong Kong is “still my home, … but in the long-term, I don’t see myself returning to work there (because) I don’t see a future prospect,” she said. Her family tells her “to emigrate to America or another country,” she added.

Liz said the protests make her feel powerless and isolated, and it is hard for her to focus on her work. “I don’t know how to help, and no one really talks about (the protests) on campus. … There is no emotional support,” she said. “I hope the campus sets up some support group for students affected by the protests.”

Elke Breker, director of International Student and Scholar Services, did not respond to request for comment.

The Brown/RISD Hong Kong Student Association declined to comment.

The students from mainland China with whom The Herald spoke were also affected by the protests. James Li ’21 said that, when purchasing an airplane ticket to travel home to Shanghai for the winter, he did not select a route with a layover in Hong Kong. “My parents wouldn’t allow me to” because they were concerned for his safety, he said. Li will not apply to any internships in Hong Kong this coming winter and next summer because of the protests.

He added that the protests are emotionally affecting him “more than I expected initially.”

Yuanhao Wang ’23, another student from mainland China, feels “sad and angry” about the protests.

The Chinese Student Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Campus discourse

Many of the students The Herald interviewed, from both Hong Kong and mainland China, were frustrated by the discourse surrounding the protests on campus.

“Most of the people here (at the University) are not concerned with what’s going on with Hong Kong,” Li said.

Three students specifically described the current campus discourse surrounding the protests as “quiet.” When Peter arrived on campus, he “was surprised (that) no one was really talking about” the protests.

“The interest level is not what we would hope to see, but it is expected considering (many students) lack connection to the issue,” Peter said. There are many materials about the protests that could help inform students; they “just have to be willing to look at it,” he said.

Chris echoed this sentiment, explaining that “people who are not related get less exposure” to news about the protests.

Despite the lack of discourse on campus, Ruodan Xu ’23, a student from Beijing, said that he doesn’t currently “see an overwhelmingly one-sided opinion at Brown, which is good.”

Four students approached by The Herald declined to comment because they stated they were uninformed about the protests.

The University has hosted two academic forums on campus about the protests. The first, a lecture on the origins and motivations behind the protests presented by Director of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Edward Steinfeld, drew criticism during Family Weekend. Steinfeld declined to comment for this story. The second was a discussion forum organized by the Watson Institute in which professors spoke on the context of the protests, and students — many wearing masks — discussed their personal experiences with the protests.

Some of the students interviewed by The Herald said that they appreciated the effort the University has made to discuss the issues surrounding Hong Kong, while others thought both discussions offered a limited academic viewpoint that did not adequately encompass the experiences of the protesters and other Hong Kong residents.“I was slightly disappointed (with the forums). … A lot of information was missing,” Chris said.

One student from Hong Kong, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals and whom The Herald will refer to as Jack, wrote in an email to The Herald that he avoided attending events about the protests “to avoid extra stress and conflict.”

—With additional reporting by Daniel Goldberg

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