UTSG: Universities Under Siege — A Roundtable Discussion

In light of recent events of police targeting university campuses across Hong Kong, we would like to discuss within the Hong Kong context, what it means for not only people, but institutions to be a targets of state violence and repression.

Two recorded interviews with frontline photographers covering the course of conflicts at two universities in Hong Kong (Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University) whose works are featured in the exhibition, will be shared.

We will be holding a roundtable discussion in the form of breakout sessions led by facilitators, in hopes of building dialogue among diverse groups affected by the Hong Kong movement.

This event will mark the beginning of the second part of the Toronto exhibition, which will be available for viewing from December 2nd to December 31st in the 2nd Floor Hallway of Hart House.

The exhibition, “Stand With Hong Kong Journalists”, showcases press photos submitted by 12 HK frontline photojournalists, presenting their accurate, fair, comprehensive and visually compelling stories about the movement. There will also be a supplementary timeline to trace the movement from the start to its current state.

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

U of T cancels Summer Abroad program in Hong Kong

University cites students’ safety as reason for cancellation, in contact with 20 students in Hong Kong

U of T cancels Summer Abroad program in Hong Kong

The University of Toronto has cancelled its Hong Kong Summer Abroad program for this summer, amidst growing protests, especially on university campuses. In the past month, there have been significant conflicts between police and protestors at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The university is also in contact with 20 students who are currently registered to study in Hong Kong.

“The safety of our students is a top priority,” wrote a university spokesperson in an email to The Varsity. “We have been carefully monitoring the situation in Hong Kong, and after much consideration, we have decided to cancel the summer abroad program in Hong Kong this year.” U of T is partnered with the Chinese University of Hong Kong for its Summer Abroad and exchange programs.

The situation escalated earlier last week when police stormed the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in a siege on protestors, leaving hundreds of people trapped inside for days. Students from universities all over the world have left the city as the conflict continues. Other universities across Canada, including the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Calgary, have recommended that their exchange students vacate Hong Kong. UBC announced that 20 of its 31 students studying abroad in Hong Kong have left the city, and that more have plans to leave.

A university spokesperson wrote that “We have been in continual contact with registered U of T students in [Hong Kong] throughout the summer and fall,” noting that U of T has 20 students registered in Hong Kong. “We have worked with each student and their partner organization to ensure their safe transition back to U of T and the completion of their fall semester.”

Hogan Lam, an organizer with the U of T Hong Kong Extradition Law Awareness Group (UTHKELAG), expressed ambivalence about the cancellation. “To be honest, I don’t know whether it’s a good decision according to the current situation in Hong Kong right now,” said Lam. “I personally [think] it is a pity because I feel like learning in Hong Kong is so different from learning from any other places, because it’s a really unique city.”

UTHKELAG has also released an open letter asking the university to take action on the situation in Hong Kong, as part of its continued activism efforts, including a hunger strike and multiple sit-ins.

The letter’s demands include condemning the Hong Kong police force, assisting university members in Hong Kong, and contacting the Chinese University of Hong Kong to ensure measures are in place to stop conflicts from happening at the university in the future.

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.

Opinion: On the climate crisis, we need sustained action

Youth activism is taking the world by storm, but Toronto is a worrisome exception

Opinion: On the climate crisis, we need sustained action

Internationally, youth activists and youth movements are creating unprecedented change. In a survey of over 6,000 participants in the current Hong Kong protests, a Chinese University of Hong Kong survey reported that more than 57 per cent of participants were under the age of 30. Sixty-one per cent of Sudan’s population is under the age of 25, and many of them were on the streets earlier this year, demonstrating against the corrupt government of President Omar al-Bashir. In Chile, the protests against the rise in transit fares, which sparked the current movement, were started by high-school students.

Of course, the trials Hong Kong, Chile, and Sudan have faced are incomparable to the day-to-day lives of Torontonians. However, the radical action that each youth-led movement embraces in those protests sends a very clear message, especially as we face Canada’s role in the climate crisis: we can do more. If, against all odds, these movements have managed to change government policy, we certainly should be able to do so as well.

Consistency is key

This past September, the Global Climate Strikes in Canada were a wonderful expression of just how many people cared and wanted to see change. The protests amassed around 500,000 people in Montréal and 100,000 in Vancouver. Toronto, however, saw only 15,000 people march ­— a relatively disappointing number. Students here at the University of Toronto are also not doing enough. Aptly put by fellow student and  head of the Friday’s for Future Toronto chapter Allie Rougeot in a previous Varsity article, “This school doesn’t feel like it’s resisting at all.”

Rougeot initially believed in a moderate transition instead of a revolutionary solution to the climate crisis. But after taking into account the fact that the root causes of the crisis were profit-seeking companies denying the climate crisis and extractive colonialism, she could no longer continue to ask for or invest in minor, moderately applied bandage solution to a rapidly-growing wound.

While the protests generated great energy across the country, we have not since seen the tangible, radical change that is necessary to address the crisis. When the same numbers are needed in subsequent efforts, when the cameras are gone, we simply aren’t there. Looking back now, it’s become an expression of just how, in Toronto, we aren’t as committed as we claim to be.

When Greta Thunberg began her movement in 2018, she protested in front of the Swedish parliament in order to demand Sweden meet their emissions reduction target. Now, she strikes every Friday, hence the name Fridays for Future. In Toronto, what we can take away from Thunberg and other youth-led protests is that consistent, sustained action is key.

Had they stopped their fight when the cameras were no longer on — when all there was to post on social media were dumpster fires and tear gas — nothing would’ve changed. They only have the power they do because they were persistent in their passion. They knew that if they did not protest, no one else would.

The clock is ticking

It is vital that we do the same here when it comes to our own political action.

Political dissent isn’t ineffective, but the limited scope of action that we’ve been seeing at the University of Toronto and in Canada as a whole, is. Considering that the future of the planet is at stake, we simply cannot allow this to continue.

Especially now, as we stare down the barrel of the climate crisis, we must act. Just recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the “climate crisis [is] reducing land’s ability to sustain humanity.” The document should be read as a terrifying plea for life.

That is exactly what the climate crisis is. People have died and will continue to do so, populations have been displaced, and here in Canada, we are warming at a rate twice as high as any other country in the world.

There are droves of solutions, most including widespread, aggressive divestment in fossil fuels. We cannot continue to build pipelines and invest in the tar sands. The list goes on and on, yet students with the power to demand change are simply not showing up. We are not consistently and aggressively holding our government and corporations responsible for their lack of action.

When we do act, when we show the power we have, change is made without fail. The government has to listen when we speak. It might be cliché to reiterate, but the power is truly in the hands of the people and especially in the hands of the students.

The government is not doing nearly enough. And yet, apathy on campus and in the country could convince anyone that they are. We seem to be waiting for someone to tell us when the next march is and whom to follow.

But the longer we wait and the more time we spend agonizing over the fact that our leaders aren’t listening is time we could spend making them listen. Those in power with the tools to create the change we need are ready to say how high — we need to stop waiting for somebody else to say “jump.”

Nadine Waiganjo is a second-year International Relations student at University College. Waiganjo is a columnist for The Varsity’s comment section.

“No end in sight”: Hong Kong protests arrive at U of T

Pro-Hong Kong, pro-Beijing students clash over the region’s future

“No end in sight”:  Hong Kong protests arrive at U of T

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