A vibrant, cosmopolitan city where “East Meets West,” Hong Kong has long been a highly desirable study abroad destination. But as the intensity of recent protests sparked by the controversial extradition bill increases, universities across the country are faced with several challenges when considering sending their students to the city.
However, the city has faced turmoil since June when thousands of citizens first hit the streets in protest against a proposed extradition law by leader Carrie Lam. Though the bill, which if passed would fugitives to be tried in mainland China, has been tabled, demonstrators continue to pursue large scale campaigns and protests. The movement has made five demands, including setting up a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality and universal suffrage. Since then, clashes between protestors and police have escalated in intensity and grown more frequent. It has been reported that more than 200 police officers have been injured, more than 2000 citizens have been arrested for protest-related charges and nearly 6000 rounds of tear gas have been fired.
Though some students are concerned about the situation, they remain open to applying. Esther Cho, a freshman majoring in journalism, hopes to study abroad in the next few years. While she’s open to any program, when asked about Hong Kong as an option she said that she would like to go.
“I think it’d be a concern, but I feel like I’d still go,” Cho said. “ [Because] my parents are also like, ‘Europe is dangerous for mugging’ …. I just feel like any location is a cause for concern because once you put into perspective every other country as well it just adds up the same.”
Others who are set to study in the city next year have no plans to drop out now. The World Bachelor of Business program requires students to spend their second year studying at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology after one year at USC. Angelina Zhang, a freshman in the program, said that while she is a “little apprehensive” about the protests, she is still confident that she will be going there next year. Zhang, who was born in Macau, feels safe as she sees herself as a near-local.
“I’ll just avoid the clashes and whatnot,” Zhang said, further explaining that for her it’s more of a big inconvenience rather than a safety issue. “For me, it’s not really like preparing but being more aware of what’s going on in Hong Kong rather than being like ‘okay, today is a good day to go out’.”
Trevor Goldsmith, a second-year student in the World Bachelor of Business program currently studying at HKUST, agrees.
“The protests do disrupt our daily lives,” Goldsmith said, referencing the metro system as an example. “Instead of closing at like midnight, it now closes at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. Exits and stations get shut down, and sometimes you can’t get off the [Hong Kong] Island fairly easily.”
Goldsmith said that police barricades often get put up on streets, and there are regular demonstrations at his university such as groups of students singing protest songs or forming human chains in an act of political solidarity.
Despite the turmoil, Goldsmith is enjoying his time in Hong Kong and believes that there is no need to cancel any study abroad programs in the city.
“It’s a really good education at HKUST ... I’m also just learning a lot about Asian culture, and it’s just really fun to live abroad here,” Goldsmith said.
He encourages students interested in visiting the city next semester to always keep up with information sources such as Telegram groups that give police deployment updates or tell members which roads are closed. He also hopes students will learn about the unrest before visiting the city.
“If you’re talking about it [prepare] from a political standpoint, the situation here is just so fluid no one really knows what’s going to happen next,” Goldsmith said. “Just keep your ear to the ground, listen to what’s going on and just try to stay in the know.”
Marshall School of Business’s Associate Director of Admissions Angela Park notes that HKUST’s campus is pretty far away from protest sites so the University is not worried about it impacting student’s daily life.
“Unless they have been actively seeking out those areas, most students have been telling us that they have not actually observed what we are seeing in the news media,” Park said.
Park adds that not only is the WBB program office in Hong Kong providing students with information of where demonstrations are happening so that students know when or where to go or not go, but students also have access to mental health services, small group meetings and town halls. Park also said the director or WBB at HKUST teaches one of the program classes and gets to meet with students on a weekly basis to check up on them and see how they are feeling. Additionally, University-run transportation services and campus security have both been increased at HKUST.
“Our professors, faculty members and program director are making that effort to clearly communicate to students about the reality of things, what to expect and to be very clear about the truth,” Park said. “Sometimes what we are seeing in the news media on Stateside is not exactly what might be actually happening or what our students who are actually there might be experiencing and seeing, so kind of drawing that realistic picture for them is very important.”
Annenberg International Programs Coordinator Georgia Stahl said that student safety remains a priority for the University. She said there are many safety procedures in place for students studying abroad in the case of an emergency, including emergency travel insurance and wellness checks.
“We’re always concerned for student safety, that’s like our main concern for any of the places where students go,” Stahl said. “We are keeping a really close eye on things in Hong Kong so we have security alerts, and we work very closely with our program coordinators at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.”
Additionally, Hong Kong is currently at a level two according to the U.S. government travel advisory and the government has not recommended against traveling to the city.
“In general, we are concerned and keeping an eye on things but so far we haven’t had any reason to cancel or anything like that,” Stahl said.
Correction made on Nov. 14, 10:12 a.m.: a previous version of this story misstated the rounds of tear gas that have been fired and also misspelled Angelina Zhang’s last name.