One campus, two systems: where does the future lie?

Healing divides between Hong Kong and Chinese students will never be easy, but the academic community is a good place for discussions to begin, argues Brian Wong

November 3, 2019
Hong Kong protests 2019
Source: iStock

This summer’s protests against Hong Kong’s now abandoned extradition bill quickly broadened into a much deeper ideological struggle between those in Hong Kong who identify as Chinese and those who don’t.

However, people on the Chinese mainland also have strong views on Hong Kong’s future, leading to inevitable clashes on university campuses and elsewhere around the world where Chinese and Hongkongers meet.

Recent skirmishes have occurred at the universities of Sheffield and Liverpool, and at the Lennon Walls erected by pro-Hong Kong students at the universities of Queensland and Tasmania, evoking the pro-freedom Lennon Wall established in Prague during the Cold War.

Meanwhile, American universities have seen both pro-mainland and pro-Hong Kong protesters adopt radical tactics of harassing and doxing each others’ most outspoken activists.

Mainland Chinese students view their vocal Hong Kong counterparts as fuelled by a mixture of virulent xenophobia, idealistic nativism and unjustifiable rejection of Chinese sovereignty; in contrast, Hongkongers see the mainland students as being brainwashed into naive nationalism. But while visceral and seemingly intractable disagreements over Hong Kong’s status and future have increasingly characterised interactions between these two student populations, it wasn’t until this summer that classroom debates and online arguments have been superseded by physical violence.

The campus protests have seen both sides turn to blatant vandalism of each other’s protest sites, and to vigilante acts of supposed justice, colloquially referred to in Chinese as si liao (私了), which literally translates as “private resolution”. This reflects the fact that neither camp has faith in their universities’ capacity to resolve what they view to be an existential question concerning Hong Kong’s relationship with its mother country. As such, laws and norms governing civility and student conduct have been all but cast aside, in favour of emotionally cathartic belligerence.

Prior to this summer, universities had conventionally maintained a neutrality-by-silence approach over Hong Kong. For instance, an Emerson College student’s controversial declaration, in a May article in the college’s student newspaper, that she identified as a Hongkonger, and not Chinese, met with a limited response on the part of her university authorities, despite the outrage of mainland Chinese students.

International universities’ lack of agency is understandable given the significant concentration of Chinese and Hong Kong students on their campuses and their mutual strength of feeling. Yet the rapid deterioration of the situation in Hong Kong itself has compelled universities to undertake active measures to limit the extent of interactions between their mainland Chinese and Hong Kong populations and has dragged academics and administrators into the flare-ups, compelling them to take sides over an issue that few have sufficient expertise to comment on with any authority.

Another disturbing trend is the formalisation of clashes between the two student groups. Previous confrontations were usually ad hoc, sporadic and centred on individuals, such as the protests last year at the University of Essex against Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong’s pictures of police hostility during Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution. In contrast, the past summer saw quasi-spontaneous crowds engage in open confrontation, drawing on shared slogans and narratives, such as Hong Kong activists’ “Five demands, not one less” and pro-China students’ “Hong Kong is a part of China” retort. Increasingly frequent rallies and clashes are organised via messaging services Telegram and WeChat, cementing the hated image of the “other” via the organisers’ accompanying justifications of provocative and retaliatory gestures and speech.

Yet not all hope is lost. Academic communities are important sites of identity formation, where individuals can undergo transformative experiences by being exposed to views that shock them out of their comfort zones and facts that challenge their biases and distorted assumptions.

If universities and student associations take the initiative to foster genuine and frank dialogue – accompanied by empathy and respect for those with dissenting views – between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong students, there could yet be a way out. More concretely, the university environment uniquely provides co-habited spaces, publicly accessible discussion fora and inclusive social events that could – with some ingenious thinking – overcome sociocultural divides.

Healing divides in a polarised era is difficult, but university campuses are the least worst of all places for such efforts to begin.

Brian Wong is an MPhil candidate in politics at the University of Oxford and editor-in-chief of the student-led Oxford Political Review.

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