University

Hong Kong divides Chinese at the RUG

Worlds apart

Over the past few weeks, the protests in Hong Kong have reached a nadir. Neither side is willing to give an inch. The discord has even reached Groningen. ‘How can you feel sympathy for these hooligans?’
By Paulien Plat / Photos by  Etan Liam / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

A man gets covered in petrol and set on fire. A police officer shoots a student. The images show the shocking truth: things in Hong Kong are serious. The police and the protesters are diametrically opposed, and both are fighting violence with violence.

The protests started as early as March, but feelings started running truly high in July. Both the protesters and the police are becoming increasingly violent, using any and all means they deem necessary. Chinese people in Groningen are also taking sides, evidenced by the fierce discussion on the article about an exchange student in Hong Kong that UKrant published last week.

The Communist Party of China has eyes and ears everywhere, and they’ve reached Groningen

Sam Hao

The Association of Chinese Students and Scholars in Groningen (ACSSG) issued a statement after the article, siding with the Chinese government.

‘The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is directly under the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China. Foreign and defence affairs are under the management of the Central People’s Government Foreign and defence affairs are under the management of the Central People’s Government’, the association writes. The statement also says there’s ‘a bottom line to freedom of speech’ and that this line is crossed in the article.

Scared

Other Chinese students in Groningen side with the protesters. ‘The Hong Kong police has been violently attacking the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong’, says Sam Hao (a pseudonym), a Chinese student at the RUG. He’s originally from the Chinese mainland, but he supports the protesters. ‘The students are being attacked with tear gas, water cannons, and sometimes even live rounds.’

Hao says it’s dangerous to express opinions that are favourable to the protests in Hong Kong. ‘As a Chinese student in Groningen I’m honestly too afraid to discuss my political standpoints. The Communist Party of China has eyes and ears everywhere, and they’ve reached Groningen.’ He says there are others who share his views. ‘But they’re too afraid to speak up.’

It can be difficult for outsiders to understand the situation, says Hao. ‘If you really want to understand what’s happening, you have to understand China’, he says. ‘It’s easy to judge from afar, but people don’t know what it’s like to live in China.’

Turning point

The protests didn’t start out violently at all, says Hao. ‘On July 17, nearly two million people gathered for a peaceful protest in Hong Kong. But the police almost immediately started using tear gas on them. How’s that for democracy?’

He tells of a violent attack in an underground train station a few days later. A group of people dressed in white started beating on people, seemingly targeting people dressed in black. Black is the dress code for the protesters in Hong Kong.

Many Chinese people think all protesters are violent

Sam Hao

Someone called the police, but they didn’t show up until three hours later. ‘That was the turning point’, says Hao. ‘There were specially hired mobs that beat up protesters, and in turn, people started resisting in non-peaceful ways. People were getting angry.’

From that moment on, Hao explains, there were two types of protesters. ‘The ones at the front were fighting violence with violence, and the ones at the back were protesting peacefully. But many Chinese people think all protesters are violent, calling them terrorists or hooligans.’

Terrorists

‘At first I sympathised with the protesters, because they were defending freedom and democracy. But they’ve taken it too far’, says Chengyong Xiao, assistant professor of supply chain management at the Faculty of Economics and Business. Xiao also comes from the China mainland. ‘Violence, vandalism, harassment… It makes me sick. The Western media calls them pro-democracy protesters, but some of them are just terrorists.’

He recalls the man who was set on fire two weeks ago for arguing with a group of protesters. The man was overheard making pro-Chinese statements. ‘I hate seeing the incredible amount of anti-Chinese sentiments the protesters are expressing.’

What would Xiao do if he were in a police officer’s shoes? ‘I don’t know. I don’t think the police violence is always justified, because it’s a vicious cycle.’

Rubber bullets

Xiaoling Liu, assistant professor of real estate at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, is also angry with the protesters. ‘How can you feel sympathy for these hooligans? They may seem peaceful, but in reality, they’re criminals who are breaking everything and have an enormous arms depot’, says Liu. He talks about an old man who was killed by protesters while he was cleaning up in the street. ‘The rioters threw bricks at him.’

‘If this had happened anywhere else, they would have been shot to death’, he says, indignant. He adds: ‘The police in Hong Kong is limited in how they’re allowed to respond to petrol bombs and other deadly weapons. All they really use are rubber bullets.’

There’s a mastermind behind the protests, someone who wants to destroy civilisation

Xiaolong Liu

Liu doesn’t think the protesters organised themselves. ‘There’s a mastermind behind it, someone who wants to destroy civilisation’, he says angrily. ‘They aren’t really students. They’re just young people who don’t have anything better to do and who are getting paid to protest’, he thinks.

He doesn’t understand how the protesters can treat Hong Kong like this. ‘How can you destroy the place you live and work? They’re destroying people’s daily lives. What will the future bring?’ says Liu. ‘The rest of the population are just collateral damage to this higher goal that the protesters don’t even know about.’

Dialogue

The two sides are fighting fire with fire. Xiao says the parties involved need to start talking to each other: the protesters, the Hong Kong government, and the central government in China. That’s the solution. ‘Stop using violence and start a dialogue’, he says.

Hao says it’s not that easy. Freedom of speech is a rare commodity in China, something the ACSSG statement confirms. ‘People are afraid to speak out’, says Hao. ‘Several Chinese authorities have probably already filed away my name. I have to think about what might happen to my family every time I say something.’

Creative commons Etan LIam - Porotesten Hongkong oktober '19

What are the protests about?

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, but most Hong Kong inhabitants don’t feel like they’re Chinese. Until 1997, Hong Kong was a British colony. After China took over, they promised the Hong Kong citizens autonomy. Because of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, Hong Kong has much more autonomy than the Chinese mainland.

The protests initially started because of a legislative proposal that would extradite criminal suspects to China. People considered the extradition law to undermine Hong Kong’s authority.

The protesters came up with five demands, one of which was that the proposal be withdrawn. And it was withdrawn, in September, but the protests did not end. The protesters also wanted Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s highest leader, to leave, and for an independent committee to investigate police actions during protests.

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