Campus under Siege: Hong Kong Universities become battlegrounds
By Charlotte Brill
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests are showing no sign of fatigue. Over the past few weeks, University campuses across the region have become the flashpoints of conflict between pro-democracy protesters and police. Many campuses have been fortified to prevent police from entering the campus and arresting protesters. If arrested, demonstrators could face up to ten years imprisonment in riot charges.
On Tuesday 13th November, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) became a battleground with clashes between police and protesters escalating dramatically. Riot officers fired thousands of rounds of tear gas, amounting to over one canister shot per second, and rubber bullets at protesters, who had barricaded themselves inside the University. After University staff failed to peacefully mediate the situation, violence continued well into the night and the campus remained besieged until Friday 16th when protesters began to disperse.
Students threw petrol bombs at the police officers and some could be seen wielding bows and arrows that they had stolen from the University’s Sports Centre. Police received lots of criticism for storming the campus but justified their actions by claiming the site was being used as a ‘weapons factory’. Students were trapped on campus, including many who needed medical assistance. By Wednesday CUHK, and many other schools, made the decision to cancel classes for the rest of the semester.
Similar conflicts manifested in campuses across Hong Kong, including the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Caught up in all of this were hundreds of exchange students, including many from the University of Sussex. Universities across the UK began to request the return of their students. A University of Sussex spokesperson said: “The University has been closely monitoring the situation in Hong Kong. Following the confrontations between protesters and police that have spilled into some of our partner campuses in the last few days, the University has made the decision that all Sussex students in Hong Kong return home”
Soraya Hossaine, a Sussex student who has just returned from CUHK, commented: ‘’I feel very sad for the friends I made whilst I was there, as the situation is heightening every day and there is a lack of coverage about the protests on an international level and the students there are in the midst of the political warfare.’’
Talking to a former Sussex student, Winehouse Yim, who lives in Tai Po which is just a stone’s throw away from CUHKs campus said in response to the conflicts: ‘’it is quite depressing because I feel like the government see youngsters as a source of threat… they are trying to ban us… from representing ourselves’’. On the other hand, he is also saddened by how protesters are vandalizing properties such as train stations, campus buildings and are breaking into student halls.
By Thursday 15th November, all classes had been cancelled and the CUHK’s campus was almost entirely run by local students and protesters. Yazz James, also a returned exchange student, described the scene: ‘’they were cleaning the toilets, had found ways to run the buses to transport each other, they’d made medical centres with nursing/ medical students caring for the injured, they were cooking for each other in the canteens- it was incredible’’
As there were no buses or trains due to vandalism and the emergence of road blockades, Winehouse explains how ‘’people were really kind as they guided [him] to CU’’ when he came to bring food and water to his friends stuck on campus. Yazz also highlighted that ‘’it’s important to note that the protesters were all concerned with our safety and were keen to help us leave’’ and explains how volunteer drivers who transported them to safer areas of the city, refused to accept any money.
Global solidarity is a key way the Pro-Democracy Movement can deter the rapid encroachment of Chinese regime which threatens Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous democracy, granted under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy. Soraya, expressed that ‘’the political leaders of all countries should condemn the acts of the violence by the police and stand with Hong Kong in this dark time.’’ This unique constitutional principle emerged when Britain returned sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997 after having colonised the region for many years. But what is Britain doing to help Hong Kong? Given Britain’s historical affiliation with Hong Kong it is contested as to whether the government has a moral duty to provide support. On a political level, however, this is a very complex and sensitive situation as it is deemed important to maintain good relations with China, especially for trade.
British citizens, however, are not so restricted by these global politics. Yazz recounts how ‘Most of [her] local friends at CUHK were begging me to speak out/raise awareness of the situation’. With the proliferation of global media platforms this is a pivotal way we can keep the conversation alive and potentially help Hong Kong retain their democratic rights. The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ deal is destined to end in 2047, a date that is rapidly approaching, so is paramount that Hong Kong, together with global support, speak and act while they still have a voice. Whether they succeed or not, it will go down in history that they fought for their Hongkonger identity. For now, we should continue to raise awareness and stand with Hong Kong to help their cause to thrive and to posit their messages in the global rhetoric.
Picture by Winehouse Yim