Hong Kong students feel as if their safety and freedoms were ignored by the University of York.
After the fiasco at the YUSU Freshers’ Fair in October 2019, in which the Union’s Doorsafe security service oversaw the takedown of a Hong Kong Lennon Wall (a message of support and truth for Hong Kong), students from Hong Kong have told York Vision that they felt that the University has had a more productive relationship with their politics, but only after the threat of bad publicity from The Times’ article that later surfaced.
With the growing conflict at home, students from Hong Kong unanimously agree that they feel a sense of self-segregation and animosity between themselves and mainland Chinese students. “[Chinese students] stay with their own people… read their own news, social media like Weibo, [and] do not interact”, one student commented. York Vision has seen screenshots from the social media app Weibo, which has seen Hong Kong “independence extremists” called “savages”, and commenters celebrating the tearing down of pro–independence posters on campus. Hong Kong students said of the Chinese state: “if they can’t beat you up in the UK, they’ll beat up your family in Hong Kong”.
According to students who were present, members of the Chinese Society (CSSA-York) reported the Hong Kong students’ stand as it contained slogans and messages which “offended” the Chinese Society members. “[Doorsafe] assumed our guilt”, claimed one student, the act was a “breach of [our] freedom of speech” as they could not understand the non–English messages. The Chinese Society of York is an endorsed organisation by the Chinese Embassy in Manchester and the Chinese Ministry of Education, as well as being a YUSU society.
Despite YUSU’s statement of having found “no evidence that any students were ordered to take down material from their stalls”, witnesses to the event claim they felt as if they were “ordered” to do so by YUSU’s Doorsafe, and witnesses report that the leaders of the Hong Kong stand were told “no politics” by Doorsafe, despite the presence of multiple political societies. Also present were the Palestinian Solidarity Society, another society which takes a stance on a contentious issue around statehood. YUSU has since told York Vision that APASS met with them, and “assured them that they can carry out political campaign activity as do many student groups including but not limited to the 18 student groups categorised as “Political and campaigning societies”. YUSU also reminded the students of ways to stay safe on campus. Recently, YUSU has had a more positive response to the political activity of Hong Kong students, such as the endorsement of a Lennon Wall in the Exhibition Centre this February, many of our sources feel as if this is only because of the bad publicity that The Times article garnered earlier in October after the Freshers’ Fair incident.
The students who spoke to York Vision also felt that the University of York’s response was “playing with the definition of force”. Though the University of York has displayed a better attitude than other universities in the UK, many students from Hong Kong feel like they had been “ignored” up until The Times’ investigation. Some speaking with Vision felt as if the University has “ignored” the safety of Hong Kong students as it is a threat “too big” for any university.
Students still must “try to be anonymous” because of political beliefs, and as violence in Hong Kong committed by the Chinese government disappears from the public eye, they feel even more isolated in their support. One source commented that democracy and freedom of speech are “crucial for western society”, and the University’s initially lacklustre response represented a far more dangerous issue within western institutions and especially universities. The influence of Chinese money distorts the principles of justice and freedom that should be upheld. The University has entered a £200M programme with a branch organisation of the Chinese government.
Our investigation has made it clear that the Chinese Society has failed to uphold the values of YUSU and the University. It is the only society which is officially sponsored by a government, and by failing to identify and challenge these destructive and aggressive attitudes within its members, it makes a mockery of our institutions and values. YUSU have told York Vision that “The Union did reach out to the Hong Kong student society a number of times in advance of Freshers’ Fair and after to offer support given the political unrest in the country.
“We have made a number of representations to the University about international student safety on and off campus using the political tensions in some countries as one of the reasons why we need to consider more support for international student safety and wellbeing.”
A spokesperson for the University reiterated York’s commitment to provide a platform for debate and to creating a positive environment for it.
They added: “The University does not tolerate racist, sexist, or bigoted behaviour. Any students who are found to have breached the University’s code of conduct will face disciplinary measures as per Regulation 7.”