UM students witness protests, flee Hong Kong by tre'vaughn howard

Video by Tre'Vaughn Howard.

HONG KONG — More than 500 new foreign exchange students arrived at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in late August not realizing that they would have a front-row experience to one of the most violent weeks in Hong Kong’s historic protests.

The November upheavals forced university officials to suspend classes weeks before semester’s end, sending students scrambling for flights back home. Among them were two University of Miami students who witnessed the heat of the protests, some of which occurred right at the university’s doorsteps.

“I was nervous about going to a country that was portrayed by the media as chaotic and in turmoil, but excited for the opportunity to witness a time in history for Hong Kong,” said Arnina Zeng, a junior majoring in health science at UM.

“When I saw demonstrators who were students from my own campus and the damages, the protests finally started to become real to me,” Zeng said.

The protests by Hong Kong citizens started in June, about two months before students poured onto campus. The demonstrations started as peaceful rallies in opposition to a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed for Hong Kong citizens who had committed crimes in other parts of China to be extradited to mainland China.

Road leading to the University entrance completely blocked by demonstrators, exchange students and staff entering and leaving campus, while the main road experiences high levels of traffic.

The bill was introduced after Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong resident, was accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend in 2018 in Taiwan and returning to Hong Kong.

Many Hong Kong citizens said they did not like that mainland China was included in the proposed extradition bill. They said they felt it was a violation of the “one country, two systems” agreement it has with Beijing.

Lik Sam Chan, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the people of Hong Kong feared the bill would not be used primarily for criminal suspects.

“We believe that the bill is actually a way for the government to extradite political criminals from Hong Kong back to China,” Chan said.

On Oct. 23, Chinese authorities withdrew the extradition bill and released Tong-kai from prison.

But the protests continued, with some of the most violent clashes between protestors and police taking place on several university campuses.

At CUHK, a campus built on a hillside and the largest in Hong Kong, militant anti-government activists prepared for violent clashes with police beginning on Nov. 11. Students woke up to an official announcement about the cancellation of classes. The statement cited public transportation issues and cautioned staff members to be safe.

Video by Tre'Vaughn Howard.

The university station connected to the Mass Transit Railway, a major public transport network in Hong Kong, closed early that morning after word spread that demonstrators and police were in a tense stand-off near the campus area.

“I went down to the MTR; it was shut and barricaded,” said Bill Wignall, an exchange student from England.

A pedestrian trail on the university campus that can be described as picturesque for a morning hike would lead unknowing runners and cyclist to a stand-off between demonstrators and police. According to several students, police arrived at the bridge where demonstrators were said to have thrown bricks onto the highway as a way to disrupt traffic.

“It was shocking but only to a certain extent,” said Janica Bergas, a senior from the Philippines who is enrolled as a full-time student at CUHK. “It’s become sort of a norm for protestors to find new ways to disrupt the normal flow of life in Hong Kong.”

After being uprooted for combat, brick sidewalks became dirt piles, and white bags filled with supplies ranging from food to empty glass bottles were used for molotov cocktails and stocked near residential areas.

By Nov. 14, the university campus had been overtaken by demonstrators, some of whom were preparing food in hostels, while others drove hotwired university shuttle buses around areas of the campus-turned war zone.

UM student Zeng said she was “shocked” and “horrified” to hear police had arrived to campus to confront protestors.

“After seeing the clashes, I realized that my peers and the CUHK community, including professors and alumni, were willing to continue fighting for their cause despite the challenges,” Zeng said.

“I was saddened to see the changed environment because it showed how quickly a protest could change into focusing on survival and war mentality when the police show up.”

Video by Tre'Vaughn Howard.

Moses Gordon, an exchange student from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, described seeing demonstrators taking over the campus as watching a “modern-day militia,” characterizing their behavior as “cut-throat.”

Panicked exchange students flooded regular consulate phone lines after receiving a chilling message uploaded by an unofficial university instagram account urging them to call their consulates. The message said “ALL INTERNATIONAL/EXCHANGE STUDENT PLEASE CALL YOUR CONSULATE NOW,” and included consulate hotlines.

Protestors in the center of a popular shopping mall in the Sha Tin district peacefully expressing pro-democratic expressions. Video by Tre'Vaughn Howard.

Clashes On Campus

Chinese University of Hong Kong

Monday, Nov. 11th

The protestors retreated to the university’s private property to protect themselves from being arrested by police, as the bridge is considered public property. Campus security eventually arrived to deescalate the situation, but left after the talks did not produce an outcome.

Growing impatient, protestors wanted the police to leave the university campus area and some began to throw glass bottles. Police responded using plastic bullets.

Video by Adriana Leila Rocks.

“The police are holding their position.” However, “If they claim the students provoked them,” said Chow Yan Chi, a senior lecturer of economics at CUHK, “if they see anything they believe is a provocation, then they obviously are going to react, and if they react, then all hell could break loose.”

Roadblocks created by demonstrators preventing traffic from moving freely on Tai Po Road.

While confrontations took place at the bridge, another university entrance became occupied by a group of officers. Protestors began to mobilize at the entrance and proceeded to use force to push the police officers away. After police retreated, the demonstrators began to build blockades on Tai Po Road, near the main entrance of the university, preventing some cars from leaving.

Video by Tre'Vaughn Howard.

Text messages with local student demonstrator who suspected police had a warrant to enter campus at 4 p.m. on Nov. 11, which led protestors to disperse.

Chow Yan Chi, a senior lecturer of economics at CUHK, debunking the rumor of police having a search warrant as a scare tactic. Video by Tre'Vaughn Howard.

Tuesday, Nov. 12

Video by Dynah Sutton.

Blockade made from campus equipment, like classroom seats, trash cans and a soccer goal net.

The following morning, a central area of the campus looked almost unfamiliar. Blockades made from school equipment by protestors and homemade items could be seen throughout the university streets.

“They took things out of classrooms, stored what could’ve been months of supplies of food and water everywhere,” said Avery Merritt, an exchange student from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “They had chainsaws, bottles of flammable liquids to start and throw fires.”

The university released a statement, requesting students and staff to “observe their own safety and stay away from zones of conflict when entering and leaving campus.”

Demonstrators at the entrance of the Chinese University of Hong Kong gathering materials, while exchange students and some campus staff exit, passing through blockades made from uprooted bricks on the sidewalk.

University officials huddled with student demonstrators to hear their concerns and possibly work out a truce to deescalate the situation with police. Video by Dynah Sutton.

As the day continued, tensions rose and police eventually used tear gas during the clashes. Any one in the immediate area could smell the tear gas in the air.

“Without proper equipment, it irritated my eyes, and burned my throat the more I inhaled,” said Merritt, an international and global studies major.

Graffiti spray painted on a school facility building at CUHK drawing inspiration from the 2019 Joker film.

In the evening, after hearing students’ concerns, Rocky S. Tuan, vice chancellor and president of the university, accompanied by security and other officials, spoke with the police force.

Video by Tre'Vaughn Howard.

The vice chancellor went to the police station to visit arrested students: Three were released on bail and provided medical and legal assistance, according to the university. The university said it would continue to provide appropriate assistance to other injured members of the school.

But not long after the administration left campus, the violent clash between protestors and police began again.

Video by Tre'Vaughn Howard.

Side by side picture of a professor’s car, and the same area hours later. Photos by Tre'Vaughn Howard and Dynah Sutton.

“When I heard and immediately saw it, I thought wow this is crazy,” said Merritt. “I can’t believe it’s happening on campus right in front of my eyes, where I sleep, where I walk around and go from class to class.”

Around 10 p.m., protestors successfully pushed back police from the bridge, and advanced beyond the campus premises. The police, however, came back with a water cannon. The cannon shot out a blue substance that irritates the skin and helps police identify individuals. The substance, according to one protester, can only be removed by a solutions police have, or immediately by a power hose.

After successfully pushing police off the bridge connecting the east entrance of campus, demonstrators were beginning to lose ground as the police force came back with a water cannon. Video by Dynah Sutton.

“The standoff lasted until around midnight before both parties backed down with no further clashes,” according to an email sent by the university’s International Asian Studies Program.

After a violent night of clashes, damages could be seen throughout various areas of campus. Video by Dynah Sutton.

After days of clashes and damage to the campus, the university announced it would shorten the fall term, which still had a little over a month of classes and exams. Students were given a range of options from professors and the university, like receiving pass/fail credit or submitting remaining assignments virtually.

A mass email sent on Nov. 16, a few days following the violent clashes, to residents of Shaw College advising those who live there to not return until further notice.

Many exchange students made arrangements to leave Hong Kong. However, safety concerns raised prevented some students from retrieving their personal belongings before they left Hong Kong.

University hostels have opened only for students to retrieve their belongings. For students who returned home, they opted to have personal belongings shipped to them. However, in a private FB group for CUHK fall exchanges students, several have expressed their concerns over lost property.

Anna Harvey, an exchange student from the University of Manchester, wrote how she agreed to make arrangements to pick her stuff up from the university, but her belongings were not there when she arrived.

“When I had to rebuy things and I actually realised I really am missing a lot of everyday things and the reality of never seeing them had sunk in, I was furious,” Harvey said.

Harvey is in talks with her home university and CUHK, which found her suitcase but not other personal items.

Meanwhile, exchange students who are back in their respective countries are completing final assignments. CUHK has offered students three options for their courses: receive pass/fail credit, receive a letter grade, or the option to drop the course.

“After classes were canceled, I traveled to Thailand and Japan,” said Zeng, who is currently still in Asia. “I had to complete a few writing assignments to replace exams, and I still have two online exams left.”

CUHK campus hostels are currently closed until Jan. 1 and is expected to resume classes for spring term.

Although the University of Miami has not made a formal cancellation for the exchange program with CUHK, students who were originally interested in the program have opted to choose other locations after having “serious conversations” about the brevity of the current unrest.

“We’re taking it student by student,” said Nina Castro, an assistant director in the study abroad office at the University of Miami. “We’re talking to each student individually, so that we can give them more customized advising.”

Since the closure of campus hostels, CUHK began laboratory test of the campus environment for hazardous materials. So far, the current results show no contaminants in soil and water samples from various locations on campus.

“To see a place where students are not only free to learn but also free to express their opinions as now a ‘battlefield’ was incredibly heartbreaking,” said Bergas, who is in her final year at CUHK. “It should never have reached the point that it did; both sides should not have allowed that to happen.”

Miami Hurricane multimedia editor Tre’Vaughn Howard is a University of Miami junior majoring in broadcast journalism and political science. In Hong Kong for fall semester, he captured the video and reported on the unrest prior to the university’s closure. @trevaughn_h

Design by Tommy Fletcher.

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Tre'Vaughn Howard