Following months of ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, two U of T students on exchange at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) told The Varsity that their time abroad was marked with fear of riot police and confusion. It ultimately culminated in a quick exit after U of T issued a notice to evacuate, 11 days before large protests were predicted for Hong Kong’s elections on November 24.

In the crossfire

From the beginning, Emily* and Julia* were concerned about the protests as they escalated in the months leading up to their exchange period, which began in September. August saw unrest spread to Hong Kong International Airport; however, despite multiple peers dropping out, the two went forward with their exchange to CUHK.

To their surprise, the streets were relatively calm — Julia elaborated, “Of course there were protests, but they were always very organized. They were on weekends usually because everyone worked during the weekdays.”

However, everything changed on October 4, when Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam used emergency powers leftover from British colonial rule to impose an anti-mask law that sparked an escalation in the protests. This was in response to rising clashes between protestors and police three days earlier, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party, resulting in the first protestor being shot by police.

“When the mask law was enacted, you really felt a different energy in the air. People were furious,” Emily said while recounting how clashes between protestors and riot police were beginning to affect aspects of daily life, like access to public transportation.

Protests cascaded over the following weeks in response to the anti-mask law. Ultimately, from November 2–8 — a time period which saw a pro-Beijing lawmaker stabbed and Chow Tsz-Lok, 22, becoming the first confirmed person to die in connection to the protests — violence, again, engulfed the city, particularly at universities. “Anytime we tried to get out, the police would try to shine their lights into our buildings, and they were shooting tear gas into the walkways,” Julia elaborated.

Siege of CUHK

On November 12, riot police began their siege of CUHK, which was justified on claims of weapons being amassed by protestors. Emily and Julia were off-campus; however, the next day, they received notice from CUHK that their semester was over. The day after that, U of T sent them one of the four emails they received while abroad, telling them to evacuate immediately and by November 21 at the latest, which was three days before elections in Hong Kong.

“I think that was to avoid the elections; they were afraid more stuff would happen on the 24, and then after that we pretty much booked our tickets the day of,” said Emily, who, along with Julia, said that CUHK maintained a better line of communication than U of T. Both institutions discouraged them from joining the protests.

“[U of T] didn’t contact us at all until a month into our exchange and they basically never checked in on how we were doing,” Emily said. “I think [contact from U of T was] just informational emails. It was never reaching out to you specifically and checking in to see if you’re okay.” Emily also said that once the siege happened, U of T checked in, but didn’t feel like her safety was being treated like the main concern: “A lot of it… was like: ‘Oh, your safety is of utmost importance, but also, you’ve got to finish school; you’ve got to fulfill your requirements.’”

Earlier this month, U of T cancelled its Summer Abroad program for 2020, noting that it “[has] been in continual contact with registered U of T students in [Hong Kong] throughout the summer and fall.”

Both Emily and Julia acknowledged that U of T was limited in what it could do, but maintained that CUHK’s constant contact with them helped to keep them safe: “They added us to a Facebook page and…  there were constant updates on [Mass Transit Railway] closings, protests, avoiding areas,” said Julia. Following the siege and the end of the semester, CUHK reached out to both to check in on their well-being, in contrast to U of T’s initial contact in October.

The two said that their time in Hong Kong is inseparable from the escalating violence that they witnessed, noting that they mainly feared riot police, not protestors.

“It’s difficult for me to remove… our feelings for CUHK and our experience in Hong Kong from our political beliefs,” said Emily. “Obviously we never felt threatened by the protesters at all. They were really just ordinary people, a lot of people that we knew, who were just speaking out for their rights.”

*Names have been changed due to fear of retribution