by Nathan Wilson and Annette Lordereau
Annette, mid-August 2019:
Before my flight left, I had been reading articles about how the airport was crowded with peaceful protesters, and how the outward flights were delayed, trapping many passengers inside. But by the time my plane landed, the situation had calmed down.
In the terminal I saw a group of young people quietly sitting, sleeping, speaking to each other and holding posters with inscriptions such as “Free Hong Kong!” and “Do not trust the Hong Kong police.” Reporters and camera crews were standing in front of them, broadcasting the scene to TV news channels all over the world. This kind of scene summarises Hong Kong in August 2019.
Peaceful protests, heightened international media attention and tourists undeterred from exploring the city. It was clearly a movement highly present on various social media platforms, led by the young, mostly students.
I noticed an important focus on freedom of religion in some protests, with some being described as group prayer sessions. When I witnessed one from afar, I heard Christian songs and saw candles being lit. Other protests involved silently walking back and forth in front of a given building or along a given street.
Nathan, a day later:
The weeks leading up to my arrival in Hong Kong had been, to put it mildy, one of great worry but also, adventure.
By this point, the airport had already seen a series of protests and mass occupations, which in turn had lead to the closing of the airport for two days in August.
When I reached Hong Kong the airport was a complete ghost town in itself. The instant heat and humidity associated with the region had become instantly clear upon entry.
As I arrived at Lingnan University, I was in amazement over multiple things. This sense of amazement rested over me for several more weeks after which it merely replaced itself with a constant reminder of where I was and what I was doing.
I lived in a flat with around 26 other flatmates. Out of that there were four other international students (two Ghanaians and two Indians); alongside this there were four other mainland Chinese students in the flat. The rest were Hong Kong nationals.
It would be a fair statement that the people I shared that flat with may have left a lasting impression on me and my soul. By the end of my tenure, I considered them the finest individuals a man could ever know.
Nathan, September and October:
For many, the protests in Hong Kong are not considered to be their namesake, but rather a revolution within Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, protests had become arguably common place, with people determined to have their voices heard. As a result, there was some form of protest nearly always on weekends in targeted area. One became very used to the constant sound that this created.
Upon my return to the UK, I experienced the peaceful first nights sleep in a while. I was used to being woken up by the sound of sirens, relating to protesting in some way.
During all of this, one had to study and work of course. Yet, I couldn’t complain too much, because as a Politics and Philosophy student, Hong Kong provided an interesting case study.
After a while, the situation began to decline in a way that meant studying verged on the impossible. Until November, the worst protesting which had been witnessed was on the 1st of October (Liberation Day in Mainland China). I struggle to think of any individuals I knew from Hong Kong who had not taken part in that day’s protesting.
That day, I would watch from my flat window as student protesters built barricades outside the main entrance of the university. It was not until November that the protesting (and the police by extension) take a much darker turn.
By September, police were cracking down on the protesters, and they were fighting back. This was when the situation was gaining the most attention from foreign media. Metro stations could be closed without warning. The reason given had to do with preventing violence in certain areas, especially if they feared that vandalism would take place. A consequence of this was that it was harder for people to go to the protest meet-up spots.
The city was still a safe place to be living in and a wonderful place to be visiting, but sometimes certain spots had to be avoided. In September I had to evacuate a metro station to the sound of alarms, with broken glass all around and no clear idea of what had gone on.
As international news shifted their attention away from Hong Kong, the situation was still far from being resolved. Protesters showed their hope for foreign intervention or help by waving US, UK, French or German flags. Around me were constant reminders of the situation in the form of tagged and graffitied buildings, with slogans often written in English, photos of members of the Hong Kong governments, drawings of characters that had become mascots for the movement, and sometimes symbols reminiscent of the French Revolution. In the evenings, you could hear people protesting from their buildings, answering each other with pro-democracy slogans. All of this had become a part of my everyday life. It was not dangerous, but it was not peaceful either.
It became clear to me that, even if as a foreigner I was able to be a witness to all of this, for Hong Kong residents it was becoming impossible not to take a stance one way or the other.
Sure, there were disagreements within sides, but the two major factions were everywhere; yellow or blue. Yellow for the pro-democracy movement, blue for pro-Beijing, the counter-protesters. Whilst people were not walking around wearing literal ribbons showing their side, sometimes businesses were labelled as ‘yellow’ or ‘blue’. If you just looked it up online, then you knew exactly to whom your money was going to, every time you spent it.
Locals told me that business owners labelled as blue for example, could fire their employees if they knew they went to protests. They might also have been big corporations whose CEO had shown sympathy to the pro-Beijing movement. These businesses were often the target of tagging or further destruction by the protesters. If this happened, they could be granted sheltering covers by the government.
Universities in Mourning
The 8th of November 2019 marked a turning point for the pro-democracy movement, as protesters mourned the death of Alex Chow, a young student “who sustained head injuries when he fell during clashes with police,” (Hong Kong Free Press) and died a few days later at hospital. For a few days following this, the mood changed from one of revolution to one of shared grief. And even so, the protest continued.
On the following Monday, access to the university campuses and the classrooms was blocked, and my exchange university cancelled all classes for the week. Local students were for the most part unable to return to the campus from their homes. Over the course of that week, lots of exchange students started leaving. Entrances of the campus were now checked. We had to present our student cards before entering.
I personally did not feel scared or unsafe, but mostly saddened. Since the protests were more and more numerous, more and more metro stations were at risk of being suddenly shut down. It was getting harder and harder to go anywhere other than our campus, especially as the local metro station was often closed. This was due to the more remote location of the university compared to the city centre, which shielded us from major conflicts but made us completely reliant upon the public transportation that was often shut down, and therefore, stuck in an empty campus. I decided to leave after my university cancelled all classes for the rest of the semester.
When November came around, Hong Kong and its universities had seen lots of disruptions. Universities were being cancelled indefinitely, there was talk of internet blackouts and even curfews. The Police had started to illegally raid universities and fight students within them. This was something that had never happened before and something which showed to others, was that Hong Kong had now become somewhere completely unsafe for students.
Just as this was happening the police had started to fight with students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and all hell was let loose. It was around this time, that my fellow students and I studying in Hong Kong had to leave. I did so with great regret for my flatmates and to all my friends out there.
Annette, end of November:
I went to Tokyo for a week following this. There, I realised that, whilst I had not been feeling afraid in Hong Kong, I had been on alert walking in the street during those couple of weeks in early November. In Japan, I was able to relax completely, even in the busiest of alleys. It made me value safety, as well as the right to self-expression and information so much more. But you don’t have to go anywhere to realise this. You just have to keep yourself informed about world news, not constantly, but from time to time. By knowing about other countries, you end up learning most about your own.
We would like to express our gratitude to the Stirling Exchange Programme team, who advised us and made sure of our wellbeing for the duration of our exchange and departure.
Featured Image Credit: REUTERS- Tyrone Siu