The protest lasted for hours. Around two dozen pro-Hong Kong and pro-Beijing students stood on opposite sides of the sidewalk in front of Sidney Smith Hall, chanting slogans and waving flags. This demonstration on September 26 was one of several that have sprung up around U of T and Toronto since June, coinciding with the beginning of civil unrest in Hong Kong.

The international nature of U of T meant that various parts of the university community, from faculty to students, have been affected by the protests. As the movement grows and shows no signs of ending, U of T is one of many universities around the world that have become a stage for these divisive clashes.

The unrest began in June, when the Hong Kong government proposed a bill that would allow the central Chinese government to extradite people from Hong Kong to mainland China. What started as peaceful protests that demanded the Hong Kong government’s full withdrawal of the bill has devolved into violent clashes between protestors and police. During the past few months, numerous injuries have been reported on both sides, as well as widespread claims of police brutality.

The city is now marked by standoffs and violence between police and protestors as the movement has grown in scope beyond the extradition bill — whose full withdrawal was announced by the Hong Kong government on September 4, and is expected to be implemented this month. The movement now includes five central demands from protestors, including the implementation of true universal suffrage.

“Responsibility to raise awareness”: Hong Kong students speak out

With its large international student population, U of T is not immune from the unrest taking place across the world.

The U of T Hong Kong Extradition Law Awareness Group has been at the forefront of these protests since it was founded in June.

“We are doing the demonstration not just because we are protecting Hong Kong, but we are protecting the universal value of freedom, and also freedom of speech,” explained its organizer and fourth-year sexual diversity studies and equity studies student Hogan Lam.

Their efforts have been supported in part by the U of T Hong Kong Students’ Association (UTHKSA), the larger cultural club on campus. President Sandra Kan noted that while historically the UTHKSA has refrained from commenting on political events, the scale of these protests has reminded her of the association’s “responsibility to raise awareness.”

“I’m trying to strike a balance between being politically neutral and spreading some news to raise awareness, because when I start to share news it means that I’ve taken this little stance,” said Kan.

Both groups expressed gratitude toward the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which reached out and offered support and resources.

Lam said that during the Street Fest, the clubs gathering at the beginning of the academic year, the UTSU helped mitigate conflict by placing Hong Kong groups away from the “Chinese [societies].”

“Our opinion is, if we’re not helping out other students unions, then what are we really doing as one?” said UTSU President Joshua Bowman. “Especially when we’re privileged to exist in a political climate that we have that is not really comparable.”

Pro-Hong Kong and pro-Beijing students face off

The Hong Kong groups’ protests have been far from unchallenged, as pro-Beijing students consistently stage counter-protests in equal numbers.

“I think it’s their freedom to protest, but it’s also our freedom to stand here against their protest,” said Ziyuan Xu, a pro-Beijing Rotman Commerce student. “I think some of the Hong Kong people, they are hurting my cultural identity,” said Xu, citing what he saw as anti-government sentiment and “fake news” about police brutality. However, credible reporting of the situation in Hong Kong indicates that such claims of “fake news” are false.

In response to the claims of police violence, Rotman Commerce student and counter-protestor Rick Wang said, “I believe that’s proper law enforcement because how can you enforce a law without any kind of violence?” Wang added that this is the police’s job as a “violent machine of the state.”

“I think it’s very ironic because what [the counter-protestors] were doing,” said Jane*, a first-year political science student who was part of the awareness group’s protest. “[Protesting] wasn’t a right that was given to them in China, but then they’re exercising it here.”

A portion of the disagreement between the two sides can be attributed to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) disinformation campaign, which has falsely framed the protests as an independence movement.

“I think a lot of people have a misunderstanding that this protest is about Hong Kong independence, especially in China,” said Kan, who pointed to how the five demands make no mention of independence.

“I do think that people in Hong Kong should stop the protest because it’s making Hong Kong society become unstable,” said Xu. “But if they are protesting here I think it is their freedom and it’s also our freedom to do that.”

Why Hong Kong matters to U of T and Canada

Hong Kong has one of the largest populations of Canadians outside of Canada in the world, with around 300,000 Canadians calling the city home. As such, the ties between the two are extremely close.

Because of this, political science Professor Lynette Ong believes that Canada has a large “interest in upholding the rule of law in Hong Kong as well as Hong Kong’s status.”

In 2017, U of T reported 10,463 undergraduate students from the PRC and 333 undergraduate students from Hong Kong, out of a total of 16,069 international students. That amounted to 65.1 per cent and 2.1 per cent of international students, respectively.

In comparison, the University of British Columbia (UBC) enrolled 5,715 students from the PRC and 288 students from Hong Kong in 2018–2019, out of 15,405 total international students — though UBC has seen much larger protests.

According to U of T Vice-Provost & Associate Vice-President, International Student Experience and political science Professor Joseph Wong, while the university does not generally take stances on international issues, it highly values students’ abilities to express their opinions.

“Having that kind of diversity of thought is something that we see as being vital to the mission of the university,” said Wong. “That being said, the safety of our students is the most important thing.”

Where will it go from here?

“No end in sight,” said Ong when asked about the future of the movement. “I think the government is trying to wait it out and drag it on.”

While Ong believes that it might quiet down, she was also sure that the people’s resolve will only strengthen “in fighting for universal suffrage and more accountability.”

Second-year political science student Hillary* says that her resolve comes from the fact that “this is my homeland.”

“This is the place that I live, I’m raised. Every single detail in Hong Kong matters to me.”

Indeed, second-year economics student Jamie* stressed that even though she is in Canada, she wanted all Hong Kongers to know that the diaspora “will always stand by them and support them.”

“Unless they give us the five demands, I don’t see that it will end anytime soon,” said Lam. “If we cannot win this, then Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore.”

The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union did not send in a comment by press time. The U of T Chinese Debate Society, U of T Hong Kong Public Affairs and Social Service Society, and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association did not respond to requests for comment.

*Names have been changed due to fear of retribution