A column entitled “I am from Hong Kong, not China” written for an American college newspaper has sparked a campus-wide debate over what it means to be Chinese.

Frances Hui, a journalism student at Boston’s Emerson College, wrote last Monday’s opinion column for her school’s newspaper the Berkeley Beacon. After summarising Hong Kong’s history and recent politics, she noted that her university had an “absence of voices” from the city, Taiwan and minority groups in China.

“I have never felt so desperate to find other people from Hong Kong and advocate for my culture,” Hui wrote, urging more discussion and understanding.

“Although it was difficult facing judgment and disdain as one of the few Hongkongers at Emerson, I will strongly hold onto that identity because I am proud and I want to tell people where my actual home is.”

Frances Hui
Frances Hui. Photo: handout.

The column prompted a letter to the editor in response – which was co-signed by Xinyan Fu, Jiachen Liu and Xinyi Tu – saying that Hui misled readers about Hong Kong’s circumstances.

The column “failed to inform its readers” and might be used to “create misunderstandings and generalisations among different ethnic groups at Emerson,” the authors wrote.

The authors added that Hong Kong is internationally recognised as part of China, and the university was correct to list the city as “Hong Kong, China” in one of its programmes. Hui should not have compared Hong Kong with Tibet and Taiwan, because “putting these issues together as evidence to back up the identity crisis is an act of generalisation.”

The column received over 300 comments on the newspaper’s website, and the letter was listed among the site’s “popular” posts.

‘Name-calling and divisiveness’

Hui told HKFP that her column has been met with “outrage” in Emerson’s Chinese student community – including insults and accusations that made her feel “unsafe.”

“I intended to encourage people to have a rational discussion and respect different perspectives. Unfortunately, the Chinese student community does not seem to uphold the same value based on the terrible comments and treatments other students and I got,” she said.

According to screenshots viewed by HKFP, Hui’s column was discussed in a WeChat group with 270 participants. One user wrote in simplified Chinese: “No matter how big she talks, she’s just a short girl. One look and you can see she doesn’t have the power to cause a lot of damage.”

Some Snapchat users also posted screenshots of Hui’s column, which was overlaid with their own comments. One read, “Shame on you,” while another wrote in Chinese: “Hong Kong belongs to the People’s Republic of China, and PRC citizens have a responsibility to speak up to protect the nation’s unity and harmony.”

One Weixin user, who said he was an Emerson student, wrote a post titled “You drink water from the Dongjiang River, you use electricity from the Daya Bay [Nuclear Power Station], and you say you are not Chinese but a Hongkonger?”

Emerson College
Emerson College. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

On Thursday, Emerson’s Director of International Student Affairs Andrea Popa sent an email addressed to the student community calling for respectful dialogue.

“While we commend the authors of these articles for voicing their perspectives in a way that was respectful of the dialogue process, we are disheartened by the name-calling and divisiveness that has occurred in some of the comments to these articles,” Popa wrote.

The university wanted to create a safe space to discuss complex questions of national affinity and personal identity, she added: “Those students who have chosen to use words as weapons, only add the strife and tension around this issue and make it very difficult to move the conversation forward in a positive way… We must do better!”

Campus debates on China

The incident at Emerson College came after Tibetan student leader Chemi Lhamo was cyberbullied at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. In February, Lhamo’s campaign to run for student union leadership was met with messages that accused her of Tibetan separatism.

Another Uyghur activist Rukiye Turdush was also heckled by a pro-China student during a talk she gave about Xinjiang’s human rights situation. In Turdush’s case, it was later reported that the students opposing her talks had been in contact with the Chinese embassy.

On Sunday, Hui published an additional statement online about the controversy, saying that “the tension and extra attention from the Chinese student community have made my life uncomfortable and stressful whenever I am on or off campus.”

Some Taiwanese students who spoke up for her also became targets, and some of her critics tried to “discredit her professionalism” as a journalist, she said.

frances hui berkeley beacon
Photo: Berkeley Beacon.

Of the three students who wrote the letter to the editor, two did not respond to HKFP’s messages asking for comment, while the third could not be reached.

One of the authors, Xinyan Fu, wrote a publicly visible Facebook post last week, saying that the letter came about because “The Berkeley Beacon is a relatively influential student newspaper in Boston, and should not have published an article with so many fact-checking problems.”

“As future journalists, we support freedom of speech, but we strongly oppose newspapers publishing a very personal and emotional article without fact-checking,” Fu added.

Fu asked that Hui and the newspaper editors be held responsible, but distanced herself from some “overly radical” comments and “personal attacks.”

Hui has said that the column represented her opinion only, not that of the newspaper. The Berkeley Beacon did not respond to HKFP’s request for comment.

In a statement to HKFP, Emerson’s AVP for Communications Sofiya Cabalquinto said that the university encourages students to report any incidents of behaviour that violate their community standards, as the university has a process for reviewing and responding to such reports.

Cabalquinto did not say whether the university has found any such violations in connection to Hui’s column or the related online comments.

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Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.