After a summer of protests in Hong Kong, many Chinese students are coming back to Purdue with different opinions on the turmoil at home.
The protests were triggered by The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill 2019. It planned create a legal framework that would allow extradition of criminal suspects between China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Many people in Hong Kong see this bill as the central Chinese government’s newest attempt to erode the “one country, two systems” policy which defines the relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has a complex identity defined by its history as a British colony and its Chinese cultural ties.
“Before they came back to mainland China, (Hong Kong citizens) may have shared a feeling of ‘I’m Chinese. One day, we’re going to leave Britain and come back to China,’” said Hongjian Wang, a professor of Chinese culture at Purdue. “But after they came back, they see how different China has become. So they feel very strongly that (with) this tension they don’t fit well in the mainland system. Then they also feel, increasingly stronger, to have a sense of Hong Kong identity, including their own economy, and also their political culture. They feel they’re a democratic society and they want to stay that way,” said Wang.
Anakin Yu, a Hong Kong native and participant in the protests reflects this unique identity.
“I’m a Chinese (person), but not from China,” said Yu, a senior in aviation management.
“Like on the papers I’ll write Chinese because it said nationality, but maybe hometown or country, I would say Hong Kong.”
Some in mainland China see Hong Kong’s relationship with them differently.
“A lot of Chinese students have posts (on social media) like ‘One China, one nation’ or ‘One China, and we love China and Hong Kong is part of China,’” said Qifeng Chen, president of the Purdue’s Chinese Student Association.
This disconnect is exacerbated by the differences in the way that the protests are covered by media in mainland China and Hong Kong.
“The media in mainland China decided the opinion of most of the Chinese because YouTube, Twitter, Facebook are banned in mainland China,” said Darrell Dai, a senior in psychology from mainland China. “So they feel it’s just the protesters that have the violence.”
Professor Wang believes this leads to different perceptions of reality between those in Hong Kong and those in mainland China.
“I looked through one of the articles shared by my Chinese friends, and you can see it’s clear that it’s more of a one-sided story,” she said. “And then if all you can see is a one-sided story, you see this as reality.”
Despite the censorship in China, Chen believes Western coverage of the protests is equally skewed.
“CNN only supports the peaceful protests,” Chen said. “They didn’t publish any news about attacking normal people, blocking the airports, blocking the subways, blocking the trains, and a lot of Hong Kong people could not get to work because of that.”
Those in Hong Kong also have different views on protest than those in mainland China.
As a citizen of Hong Kong, Yu sees protest as a way to create positive change.
“Some people define ‘You love the city’ by supporting the government,” he said. “But the way I define it is ‘You want the place to improve.’ You love the place so that it will make change and it will move forward.”
In mainland China, however, protest can be viewed negatively.
“In the long history of China there were always protests or rebellion,” Wang said. “But then the mainstream of the culture sees rebellion as disobedient. And then disobedience is looked down upon.”
Some protesters view the situation with a sense of hopelessness as protests enter the third month.
“Peaceful didn’t work,” Yu said. “What else can we do? We cannot kill people. We cannot fire people.”
On the Chinese side, there is also a fear that acquiescing to protester demands will lead to a slippery slope.
Yu believes that even if the Chinese government meets protesters’ demands, the respite will only be temporary.
“It will be a pause,” Yu said. “That means the government did its job of talking to its citizens. But I don’t know what’s next.”