In the Spotlight: U of T students on exchange in Hong Kong

Two U of T students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong describe escalating violence, evacuation

In the Spotlight: U of T students on exchange in Hong Kong

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

Pro-Hong Kong student group sets up UTSG Lennon Wall, organizes hunger strike

Hong Kong anti-extradition group aims to spread awareness in Canada

Pro-Hong Kong student group sets up UTSG Lennon Wall, organizes hunger strike

As the months-long protests in Hong Kong show no signs of slowing down, U of T students have continued to bring the protests to Toronto. Pro-Hong Kong students set up a Lennon Wall on the UTSG campus and organized a 48-hour hunger strike, though the strike ended prematurely due to worsening weather conditions at the recommendation of first-aid volunteers on site.

The protests in Hong Kong, ongoing since June, were sparked by an extradition bill which would have allowed for detainees in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. The bill has since been withdrawn, though the protests have continued and grown in scope, now encompassing greater demands for full democracy and freedoms.

As the protests continue, violence has escalated as demands by protestors have expanded — universities in Hong Kong have become grounds for petrol bombs and tear gas as protestors and police clash amidst heightened protests against police brutality and calls for full democratic elections.

Lennon Wall

The U of T Hong Kong Extradition Law Awareness Group (UTHKELAG) put up a Lennon Wall outside of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) building on the night of November 5, as a forum for expressing pro-Hong Kong sentiments. Lennon Walls, which are collaborative mosaic walls that originated in Prague during the 1980s, have been a part of the anti-extradition law protests in Hong Kong over the past few months.

The U of T Lennon Wall features over a hundred coloured sticky notes on which students have written messages such as “Free Hong Kong,” and “Democracy Now!” In the middle of the wall is a memorial to Alex Chow Tsz-Lok, a student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who died on November 8 after falling off a parking garage during a police raid days earlier.

Chow was reportedly attempting to escape tear gas when he fell, though the exact circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. His death has further fuelled global protests, and it has been cited as one of the only deaths linked directly to police interference.

“Lennon Walls have popped up around Hong Kong mostly as sites for expression of views, largely pro-democracy, in favor of the protests and our objectives,” said Milton Chow, a fourth-year student at U of T and a member of UTHKELAG.

He said that the purpose of the wall is “to allow the U of T community to see [that] what’s going on in Hong Kong matters to our Hong Kong student community right now, especially since Toronto is home to one of the largest Hong Kong diasporas anywhere in the world.”

Milton explained that the group hopes to keep the wall up for “as long as we possibly can,” to show the spirit of their activism.

“It’s pretty clear that it is named after former Beatles frontman, John Lennon,” said Milton. “But, in large part it revolves around his messages of peaceful yet radical change, and moving toward greater freedom and democracy for all.”

Michael Junior Samakayi, UTSU’s Vice-President, Equity, said that the UTSU’s decision to allow the wall on their building was a show of solidarity with the people of Hong Kong: “If we’re not standing up for them, then what are we really doing as a student union?”

Hunger strike

This weekend, the student protestors set up chairs, posters, and a tent outside of Old City Hall as they attempted to wait out a 48-hour hunger strike from 10:00 am on November 16 to 10:00 am on November 18. However, 12 hours in, the strike ended early due to safety concerns regarding the cold weather.

Marco So, a first-year student from Hong Kong at the strike, described the current wave of protests as “maybe the last fight for [the] democracy of the Hong Kong people.” He called the hunger strike “a way of self-sacrificing,” and cited his own reason for getting involved in the strike as not having participated in Hong Kong protests before: “And I feel a little bit of regret about that.”

Man Kin Sum, an exchange student at U of T from the Chinese University of Hong Kong participating in the strike, said he was motivated by the recent violence at his home university, where students and police clashed in an hours-long skirmish.

“In the past few days, Hong Kong police tried to get into our school, and there are like a thousand cans of tear gas and they tried to use [a] water cannon and even rubber bullets to attack students,” said Sum.

Hogan Lam, one of the organizers of UTHKELAG, said that the purpose of the hunger strike was to show solidarity with Hong Kong and to get the attention of U of T and Canada.

Due to the nature of the attack at a university, Lam said, “I feel like U of T, as one of the biggest educational institutions in the world, they really have to say something or at least make a stand.”

The Varsity has reached out to U of T Media Relations for comment.