Fraught exchange: Hong Kong global students' fear and rebellion

by Katie Forster
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Celia Cheng wants to continue her degree in Hong Kong, despite her family's reservations

Malaysian student Celia Cheng's first semester in Hong Kong began with being tear-gassed outside parliament and ended with her evacuation from campus as protesters hurled petrol bombs at police.

The 20-year-old wants to continue her degree in a city rocked by six months of democracy protests, despite her family's reservations.

"If my parents don't allow me to go back to Hong Kong, I might need to defer my studies," Cheng, who won a scholarship to one of the city's top universities, told AFP from Malaysia.

Hong Kong's universities -- among the world's most highly rated -- have become a focal point of violent clashes between police and demonstrators, and senior staff fear this could put off overseas students.

Last month protesters at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) blocked a major highway and fired arrows at police in a tense stand-off.

An even more violent siege at Polytechnic University lasted nearly two weeks with some protesters attempting daring escapes down ropes and through sewers.

Before term began, Cheng and another Malaysian student put on masks to join a rally at Hong Kong's parliament, where young protesters stormed the building on July 1.

"I do support the cause, but at the same time, it was also curiosity," she said, describing the night as "quite scary" -- she saw computers and windows get smashed, then escaped through clouds of tear gas.

"The protesters were very welcoming. The Hong Kongers would ask me, 'Do you really understand what we're fighting for?'" she said. "If I didn't understand, they'd explain."

Cheng, who asked to use a pseudonym, didn't tell her family in Malaysia about that night. She says they see the protests as "useless" and support China as a strong economic power.

After the campus clashes and once classes were cancelled for the rest of term, she was bussed away from her dorm with her belongings.

Many exchange students were called back by their home countries and institutions, while some students from mainland China at CUHK were evacuated in a police boat.

- International reputation -

There are some 18,000 international students at Hong Kong's eight government-funded universities, representing 18 percent of total enrolment.

Of these, the majority -- around 12,000 -- are from mainland China, which rules the city under a "one country, two systems" agreement signed at Hong Kong's 1997 handover from Britain.

One University of Hong Kong (HKU) graduate arts student from the mainland said she plans to return to campus next semester, but has "some concern about safety".

This is because "fundamental things like the tension between the protests and government" have not been resolved, she added, asking not to use her name.

HKU was named the world's most international university earlier this year by Times Higher Education, and is 35th in the British magazine's overall global rankings.

"We recruit particularly our graduate students heavily from overseas; we are concerned about the impact of the protests generally on that," said Matthew Evans, dean of HKU's science faculty.

With exams postponed and classes held online for the rest of term, HKU's usually pristine hilltop campus is eerily deserted and covered in graffiti, with security guards checking student and staff IDs at each entrance.

Evans said discussions are being held on whether the campus needs to "beef up" security in the long term, "to recognise the changed environment that we're operating in".

"We want to and will continue to protect freedom of speech, academic freedom, but we can't do that in an environment where there's a risk of running battles."

- Democracy problems -

Marie Funke, a 21-year-old politics student from Germany on a year-long exchange at CUHK, said she had seen other overseas students going to face off against police on the front line.

"I'm not sure how I feel about that... we are so privileged in the way that we can choose to do this or not," she said.

"I really support the cause, the struggle for democracy, even though I might not be fully compliant with all the strategies going on right now."

Taiwan's education ministry said last term any students fleeing the Hong Kong protests could register with Taiwanese universities to continue their studies.

It's an offer 20-year-old arts student Janice Lee from Hong Kong may take up, as her parents are making plans to emigrate to Taiwan if the situation deteriorates.

At a recent Q&A session for overseas HKU students, organised by a dozen local students involved in the protest movement, Lee said some of her international classmates were also planning to go elsewhere.

"I think they are scared because the movement has lasted for so long," she said.

Celia Cheng wants to continue her degree in Hong Kong, despite her family's reservations

A violent siege at Polytechnic University lasted nearly two weeks