The clashes and police operations at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University over the past week have shaken the confidence of some foreign students, who are now unsure if they want to stay in the city.
Two exchange students, from the United Kingdom and Germany, told Asia Times that if the confrontations between protesters and police continued to escalate, they would have no choice but to leave Hong Kong.
Another student, from the United States, said he would try to find a job in Hong Kong, but he remained open to moving to another city. All three PolyU students preferred to stay anonymous.
“Many things have happened in Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong are very strong and they continue their daily lives,” said Alex, a 20-year-old UK exchange student who studied business and who was scheduled to stay in Hong Kong for one semester between September and December.
“When there are only protesters, I am happy to be walking through. I don’t feel unsafe. But once the police turn up, that’s where the risks happen,” he said.
Alex said the major inconvenience for him was the suspension of MTR services, but he added he would be fine as long as he could walk. He said “the movement is bigger than me.”
He said Hong Kong was safe enough for foreigners if they avoided going to places near the protest sites. However, he added that he would become more concerned and think about leaving if the risks escalate.
“I didn’t feel like I was very much affected because I am westerner … but until now, things got complicated. This week, when PolyU was literally on fire, it’s a bit scary and creepy. I felt I was immersed in these political situations,” said Sophy, 26, who came from Germany to study tourism in Hong Kong for one semester.
“I can understand that sometimes people have to live in places with certain instability, such as in Barcelona … but if it’s for the long term, I don’t like to be 24/7 immersed in violence and disruption,” she said.
She added that she had been affected by the tear gas during her lunch hour on Monday. She also hoped she would be better informed by the university about what was happening in the city.
Sophy said she would go back to Germany when the semester ended next month, but she would come back after graduation next year. She was doubtful about Hong Kong’s job market amid a weak economy.
Peter, a 23-year-old full-time student from the United States who has spent four years studying electronics and engineering at PolyU, said he planned to find a job in Hong Kong and would not leave the city for now. He said he remained flexible about relocating if necessary.
He said he was not worried about his personal safety as he had chosen not to get close to the protest sites and changed schedules due to traffic situations.
Hong Kong had been in a chaotic situation over the past week after protesters rallied in different districts across the city from November 11. With the Tolo Highway and Hung Hom Cross Harbour Tunnel blocked, the city’s transport system has been paralyzed.
After police fired more than 1,000 tear canisters at protesters on a bridge to the Chinese University of Hong Kong on November 12, protesters left the campus on November 15 to avoid more injuries. Over the past weekend, major clashes happened on two footbridges near PolyU. Police fired about 3,000 tear gas canisters in Hung Hom and Tsim Sha Tsui between Sunday and Monday.
On Sunday evening, the police surrounded the campus and declared it a crime site. They said anyone who came out from the campus would face rioting charges.
As of Thursday, about 1,000 people “surrendered,” while about 100 decided to stay. A further seven surrendered on Thursday. Police had not yet decided when to clear the campus.
It was suspected that the government wanted to avoid any clashes before the District Council elections on November 24.
“I do believe the violence was first escalated by the use of force by the police, while the increase in the use of tear gas and batons has escalated quickly,” said Alex, who was affected by tear gas when he and his friends were observing the protests from a rooftop on Monday.
“Protesters realized that they had to defend themselves and started to react with some violence. The situation has gradually become chaotic,” he said.
Alex said Hong Kong people might be frustrated that the Umbrella Movement in 2014, which was mainly a street occupation protest, as well as the two-million people march in June this year, did not have enough impact on the city’s democratic movement.
However, he hoped Hong Kong protesters would stick with the non-violent principle, just as Mahatma Ghandi, the leader of India’s non-violent independence movement against British rule, had done in the past.
Peter said he was not touched by the Hong Kong protests as he was a foreigner in the city. He said he understood why Hong Kong people were fed up with the government’s excuses not to retract the extradition bill early this year.
He said if he was a Hong Konger, he would try to look for dialogue with the government, given that the two-million people protest in June had actually led to the official withdrawal of the extradition bill in September.
“There must a peaceful and different way of doing things,” he said.
Stand-off in campus
Asked about the police operation to surround the campus, declare it a crime site and arrest all the people on rioting charges, the three students had mixed views.
Alex said it remained arguable whether everyone inside the campus were “rioters” as there were hardliners and some people who simply wanted to provide medical services or safeguard the campus.
Peter said he supported the police operation, although he said defining the campus as a crime site was probably an abuse of language. He hoped the university’s leaders could take more initiatives to end the stand-off.
Sophy said she hoped the police had acted earlier when more and more protesters started gathering on the campus a week ago. However, she did not agree with the police actions to arrest journalists and medical staff near and inside the campus.
The three did agree on one thing – do not come to Hong Kong to study right now.
The trio also had different plans if Hong Kong was further mainlandized and gives up the “one country two systems” principle.
“I will not come back” if Hong Kong becomes “one country one system,” Sophy said, adding that she could not live in a place without a free flow of information or access to social media such as Facebook and Instagram.
Without the “one country two systems” principle, it would not be Hong Kong anymore, but another city in China, said Alex. “The freedoms that Hong Kong have will erode, while freedom of speech will be gone.”
He added that the re-education camps in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region was a humanitarian crisis comparable to Germany when Jews were persecuted. However, he said there was not much the governments around the world could do about it.
Alex admitted that the West could do nothing if Hong Kong became another Xinjiang with deteriorating human rights. He said the incident that NBA apologized for – Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters – showed that China’s censorship was growing.
“Whenever that happens, China gets stronger, while the freedom of speech in the West gets eroded,” he said.
He said many Hong Kong people did not want the city to be mainlandized as the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984 had promised their rights would remain unchanged.
If “one country one system” has to happen in Hong Kong, it will happen, said Peter, who has visited mainland China five times. “Hong Kong will change, of course. It will have an impact on the actual people living here. As a foreigner, it’s hard to say if I will be impacted or not.”
He said that fortunately, he had the flexibility to choose where to stay. He said he would continue to stay in Hong Kong and reach out further in Asia. In an extreme case, he said he could use virtual private networks to bypass the internet firewall and stay quiet on social media amid China’s censorship.