Last Thursday afternoon, I witnessed a scene I have never before seen in eight years of teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). In front of the Democracy Wall in central campus, a group of students was shouting “Hong Kong independence!” in Cantonese. Another group was shouting “Oppose Hong Kong Independence!” in Putonghua.

Although there is sometimes an undercurrent of tension between the local and mainland students on campus, largely reflecting the wider Hong Kong-mainland tensions in society at large, such an open display of conflict is extremely rare.

chinese university independence posters democracy wall
The “Democracy Wall” at Chinese University. Photo: In-Media.

That said, the shouting match I saw was noisy and tribal but free of profanities and outright hostility. The only pushing and shoving occurred when a man insisted on posting flyers insulting Hong Kong students on top of existing pro-independence flyers.

I noticed two mainland students watching quietly and disapprovingly from the sidelines. They didn’t like the shouting and they didn’t want to talk about politics. “We’re just here to express our opinion peacefully and rationally,” said one. “We don’t agree with the Student Union, the Student Union doesn’t represent us, CUSU is not CU.”

See also: Hong Kong’s Basic Law does not ban ideas, and universities are not for one-way learning

Indeed, most of the posters put up by mainland students were copies of a template and bearing those exact words, apparently an attempt to mirror the slogan “Hong Kong is not China.”

The message seemed unconvincing. I suspected the unprecedented show of united opposition from mainland students on campus had nothing to do with representation, and everything to do with an almost visceral reaction to the calls for Hong Kong independence.

independence notices at CUHK
Anti-independence poster at CUHK. Photo: InMedia.

A number of mainland students and recent graduates I spoke to also believe this to be the case. Daniel, a former undergraduate at CUHK says that for most mainland students, “The unification of China is something that cannot be questioned, negotiated or compromised, which in my opinion is the most successful brainwashing that the Communist Party did among all it has done.”

He says this means it may be fine to criticise the government, the party or even mainlanders as individuals but when it comes to any advocacy for “separation or independence from China, it’s very likely that they’ll be pissed off and take it personally, as that is their bottom line.”

Unlike most of his compatriots, Daniel says he is not at all bothered by the pro-independence banner and posters.

“The form of expression and discussion is a bit childish, but the content is indeed debatable in terms of HK independence,” he says. “Even Tibet, Xinjiang, not to say Taiwan, [they] are all debatable to me.”

Not many mainland students are as open to the case for independence as Daniel but even among those who disagree with the idea, reactions are more nuanced than the slogans and ‘biaoqingbao’ 表情包 (a popular form of online visual that combines elements of an emoji and a meme and usually conveys mockery and sarcasm) plastered on the Democracy Wall would suggest.

chinese university independence posters democracy wall
Posters at Chinese University. Photo: In-Media.

Heidi, another recent CUHK graduate from the mainland says she thought it was inappropriate for the Student Union to allow the plastering of multiple identical pro-independence posters on the Democracy Wall because it left little space for other views.

She disagrees with Hong Kong independence because she says it could never work, but she also understands why some Hong Kong young people would advocate for it.

“Our central government is much more powerful than the Hong Kong government, and Beijing government won’t allow the separation of Hong Kong,” she says. “But I do think the central government didn’t keep [its] promise on Hong Kong, like universal suffrage. Lots of disappointments lead to today’s radical reaction. I think central government [is] a lot to blame.”

When Heidi’s parents asked her about the campus controversy, she says she explained the context. Starting with the Joint Declaration and the promise that Hong Kong’s way of life would remain unchanged for fifty years, to the anti-National Education movement and Occupy Central.

It is worth noting that Daniel and Heidi were both undergraduates at CUHK, which means they spent four years studying and living in Hong Kong, taking classes where the majority of their peers have been local students. Both of them say their experience has transformed them and opened their eyes to a world outside of their Chinese school education. Many mainland students at CUHK and other Hong Kong universities only are in one-year Master’s programmes, and lack these experiences.

chinese university of hong kong 1
The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

Brigitte, a mainland undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Communication (where I teach) says her time at CUHK has made her the person she is today. As a journalism student she had to learn about current affairs and social and political issues in Hong Kong and she recalls encountering the Umbrella Movement in her freshman year.

“I felt so confused and lost at that time. I didn’t know what was going on and what were people trying to defend and ask for. I just felt Hong Kong was so rebellious at that time and I wanted to find out how people viewed it and why so many people came out to street. Studying in Hong Kong provides me with a lively civic education.”

In China, Brigitte says, there is no civic education, only patriotic national education.

Although the degree to which a student will be similarly affected by their Hong Kong university experience will vary from person-to-person, Brigitte thinks her case is not that unusual amongst undergraduates.

However, the situation is often quite different for those studying in one-year self-financed post-graduate courses. These students, most of them fresh out of university in the mainland, attend classes where the majority of students are fellow mainlanders. They have little time to gain deep knowledge and understanding of Hong Kong and few of them will become proficient in Cantonese.

hong kong independence
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

A lack of knowledge and appreciation for Hong Kong’s history and political development beyond the official narrative and limited sustained contact with local students make it difficult for mainland students to understand their local peers and to develop considered responses on issues where they disagree.

Daniel, Heidi and Brigitte are disappointed by what they see as the irrational and emotional response from some mainland students. They believe the latest storm on campus highlights a breakdown in communication, where the two sides are shouting over each other. This obscures the fact that not all Hong Kong students support independence and not all mainland students are hostile to pro-independence views.

Yet as Daniel points out, in the current toxic atmosphere, any mainland student who tries to offer a different view will be immediately perceived as defending Hong Kong independence and be labelled as a “traitor to the race”.

Daniel fears that not only will continued confrontations make Beijing tighten its grip on Hong Kong even more, but it could also make it harder for mainlanders who support Hong Kong to speak up.

“If you want democracy, freedom, autonomy or even independence for Hong Kong, you’ve got to have some allies, right? This bunch of mainlanders who have studied and lived in Hong Kong are the most possible allies you could get as they know what’s happening here and are more likely to have the empathy and fight with you together, compared with those 1.3 billion who have never been here. [But] if it is going to continue like this, I truly can’t see a way out.”

All names of students and recent graduates have been changed to protect their identity.

Yuen Chan is a journalist who has worked in print, television and radio as a reporter, anchor and presenter and columnist in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. She previously taught journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she oversaw the practicum magazine Varsity. Chan is also a founding member of Journalism Educators for Press Freedom. A native of Hong Kong and London, she loves Hong Kong and Canto culture.
Follow Yuen's blog here.