As an expatriate employee at an university in Hong Kong, I see student engagement in the Hong Kong protests as a detached observer on the front lines. I walk through the same public spaces as many of the students, yet I am reasonably removed from the social networks of the undergraduates. While the world is focused on the front lines of the HK protest movement playing out near the legislative and commercial spaces of Hong Kong Island, I find that less visible, yet arguably equally important, are the protests and dialogue occurring on university campuses all over Hong Kong.

Before the current protests, I enjoyed observing, from afar, a postcolonial generation of young Hong Kong students negotiating a complicated relationship with their fellow students from the mainland. Normally, expat exchange students, local Hong Kong students, and mainland students hung out amongst themselves, and once in a while there are interesting efforts at cultural outreach across the groups. Mainland students awkwardly learn Cantonese phrases to conduct their daily life in Hong Kong, while local students practice their Mandarin. Some Hong Kong students are eager to embrace their fellow mainland students, while others keep their distance, reflecting the ambivalent view many citizens seem to have about their future under PRC rule. During orientation week activities, an open atmosphere of embrace prevailed as student organizations jockeyed with each other in the main atrium to recruit students. Several times, I was mistaken as a student and was approached by recruiters about joining sports clubs or religious groups.

The campus atmosphere changed subtly during the week of Sep. 22, when student organizations all over Hong Kong initiated an academic boycott. Black banners suddenly appeared in the center atrium, boldly asserting that the National People’s Congress did not represent them and urging students to boycott classes and practice civil disobedience (see feature photo at top). The atrium was cleared of student organization stalls, and the only signage in the area were the banners and flyers relating to the strike. Interestingly enough, the only student organization I saw still actively recruiting students was the school’s Taiwanese Students’ Association. The topic of “Occupy Central” began to come up more frequently in lunchtime conversations with colleagues.

Then, on Monday, Sep. 29, the day after the police unleashed tear gas on the protesters, the atrium was suddenly bedecked with a proliferation of posters, banners, and yellow ribbons. Student activists had set up a stage with chairs and a microphone for students giving short speeches, in Cantonese. Yellow ribbons appeared overnight on door handles and railings. Signs urged the university community to wear black on PRC National Day on Oct. 1, and to refrain from watching the celebrations and ceremonies on television. A few days later, a message from the student union was sent to the entire university community listing its protest demands and formally requesting that faculty accommodate student protest activities by considering class rescheduling, make-up tutorials, and changes in grading procedures that put less weight on classroom participation.

The mainland students and staff I had casual conversations with expressed sympathy for the student protesters, but, with the exception of a few outspoken ones, all seemed to be quite careful about expressing unreserved support. (In addition, I would guess that those who disagreed with the protests would not be eager to express those views publicly in a university setting.) The local students and staff I talked to were overwhelmingly supportive.

Meanwhile, the number of flyers on the “Chinese Character Poster Wall”, originally scattered with poetry, excerpts of writings, and announcements in Chinese, proliferated as student protesters and anti-student protesters posted thoughts and slogans. In one particularly interesting exchange, the author berates student protesters and makes fun of them by asking whether their political education was taught by gym teachers, a phrase often used by mainland Chinese students. A handwritten response in small blue ink text reads, “Dear, we don’t have political education classes in Hong Kong,” a clever reference to both the fact that the writer recognizes the original poster is probably from the mainland, and the fact that Hong Kong students were able to successfully prevent the PRC from introducing political education classes into the Hong Kong school system.

In an adjacent corridor, students were forced to walk over the character for boycott, “罷”, spelled out in black sheets of paper as they entered another section of the academic building. Nearby, a large banner advertising the cultural activities of the university’s Taiwanese Students Association was strategically hung near the entrance to the atrium area, the only student organization still visibly advertising its events.

Since last week and even now, students at their dorms or apartments are carefully weighing the arguments from different sides, and if they have decided to protest, are deciding how to balance their protest activities with their academic responsibilities. During a brief visit to the protest sites last week, I observed a sea of young people walking around, sitting, and chatting. Some of them proudly wore black T-shirts emblazoned with the name of their university, and I overheard a few conversations among students deciding whether or not to attend class, and trying to find the time or means to turn in assignments and keep up with work.

Meanwhile, the university administration has been carefully weighing the tools with which they can support or discourage students from protest. The university administration has made it clear that they are interested primarily in the physical safety of their students and of respecting their students’ rights to free speech. An email from the university president sent the day of the tear gas incident indicated that the university had set up a special hotline for parents and concerned community members to obtain legal assistance for students detained by the police, and stressed his desire that all participants behave in a “peaceful, rational, and non-confrontational” manner. Yet there is a sense of implicit sense of support for the students’ efforts from the administration. Another message from the university president on the day after the tear gas release indicated that he had asked faculty members to make temporary arrangements for this week such that the grades of students who are absent from class would not suffer. But, ultimately, the university administration seems to be hoping for compromise and resolution. The president, on Oct. 3, made it clear that they were doing whatever they could to promote dialogue, and two representatives of two of HK’s major universities addressed students directly to encourage them in their non-violence and to encourage compromise.

Student leaders led a very well-attended anti-violence rally the evening of Saturday Oct. 4 after they called off talks with the Hong Kong government after anti-protest forces, alleged to be coordinated by the government, attacked protesters on Friday. In response, Chief Executive C.Y. Leung warns of “tragedy” if students do not disperse. At that point, faculty and administrators seem to have reached a consensus that the situation has become too extreme for its students, and on Sunday, Oct. 5, the university president sent a message to students explicitly urging them to leave protest sites, warning that the students could lose what they have gained if they continued protesting. I was not able to gather what the mainland students think of the latest developments; I do wonder if mainland students are for the most part staying even farther away from the topic, to avoid drawing controversy to themselves, whichever side they are on.

As of Monday, Oct. 6, the protests seem to be dwindling as the Federation of Students began meeting with government officials to talk process about possible substantive negotiations. However at this point, no one is still sure what will happen next. But behind the crowds and smoke on the streets of Hong Kong, there is a storm of activities and statements from university administrators and faculty that may ultimately shape the outcome of this tense moment for Hong Kong.

(Feature photo of banners urging students to boycott, by Margaret Peng)

Margaret Peng

Margaret Peng is a staff researcher at a major university in Hong Kong. She is a Canadian citizen with Taiwanese roots and received her Ph.D. in social sciences from a major U.S. university.

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