“When I got out of my lecture just now, I saw a protest march of about 400 students who were going around campus with banners”, says Wouter, speaking to us over the phone from his student room. A lot of students are boycotting the first two weeks of the academic year. “They feel that the current situation in Hong Kong, with its rising police violence, is so aberrant that they don’t want life to just continue as if nothing were amiss.”
The cause for the protests is proposed legislation that will make citizens of Hong Kong liable to be taken before a Chinese court. Although the bill has now been withdrawn, protesters demand that arrested protesters are released and that an independent investigation into police violence is set up, among other things.
Wouter is confronted with the situation in the city on a daily basis. “When I look out of my window, I can see that the skyway is completely covered in protest posters about police violence.” The atmosphere at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) is normal, and most students continue to go to lectures. Still, the protests are on every student’s mind.
Even though the CUHK doesn’t fully support protesting students missing lectures, things are still made easy for them: there are no penalties for absence, and the lectures are all recorded. “The first few days, there were even professors marching, which meant that several lectures had to be cancelled”, he says.
'Everyone is taking part'
“Every young person in Hong Kong, apart from a few students, is taking part in the protests”, says Wouter. “The first few days that I was in the city, I was staying at a hostel where two of the staff were busy printing and handing out flyers. All local students I know have gone to the protests and use social media to share where the protests take place.”
The protests also had an influence on the opening of the academic year. “Students hosted an opposing opening: the opening of the boycott. 30.000 students came to protest on the CHUK campus, and readings were organised. It was a quieter protest than most. As it was held on private university property, the police let the students go about their business.”
Wouter is hearing all sorts of stories about the protests from students around him. “I spoke to a boy who took an active part in a protest in July. At that event, protesters were attacked by gang members of the triads (Asian gangs). He was also beaten by gang members and is really angry that the police didn’t do anything to protect the protesters.”
Wouter hasn’t really been bothered by the effects of the protests. “Tens of thousands of people might be taking part in a protest just two blocks down the road and you probably wouldn’t even notice.” He reads the South China Morning Post every morning to see where the protests are taking place that day.
The city is pretty safe, but a lot of exchange students still end up in the protests, be it intentionally or otherwise, which can lead to nasty consequences. “A friend of mine was watching a protest from the side, among a group of journalists. This meant that he had a good view of proceedings and was in a good position to take photos, as journalists are pretty safe during protests. Things got chaotic after a while, however, and he ended up running down the street with a group of protesters. That’s when he was drawn into an altercation with the police and was sprayed with tear gas eight times. Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously hurt — he only suffered a temporary burning sensation on his skin.”
Wouter’s family are concerned for him, however. “My mother is constantly texting me to see if I’m OK. I understand her position, as the most sensational images are of course the ones that make it onto the Dutch news. The protesters might be wearing black masks, but I know that there are ordinary students beneath those masks.” Wouter certainly doesn’t regret his decision to come to Hong Kong. “I never feel unsafe in this city. It’s actually fascinating to me to be able to experience this global news first-hand.”
Wouter prefers not to have his surname printed to avoid problems at the Chinese border. His full name is known to the editors.