As the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong grew increasingly violent over the past week, international exchange students are leaving the city. In response, USC is making changes to its study abroad programs there.
The protests began in June in opposition to the proposed extradition bill that would allow fugitives to be sent back to mainland China. Though the bill has since been withdrawn, the demonstrations have developed into a broader anti-government movement. Protestors are demanding universal suffrage and an independent commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality.
Clashes between protestors and police have escalated in intensity and grown more frequent, with a new turning point last week.
The protests entered a new stage of turmoil after a student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology fell to his death. The cause of his death remains unclear, and while protestors have alleged that the police are responsible, the police have denied having anything to do with the death.
The death triggered a new wave of protests, including a two-day standoff between students and police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Police fired more than a thousand rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets and protestors threw molotov cocktails. This prompted CUHK to announce on Nov. 13 it would suspend classes for the rest of the semester, and almost all other universities in Hong Kong soon followed. With classes suspended, students have begun to return home both locally and abroad.
Trevor Goldsmith, who studied at USC last year is a second-year student in the World Bachelor of Business program and among those who have left Hong Kong. He is now back home in the States. Students in WBB spend their second year at HKUST after a first year at USC.
While the protests were previously only minor traffic disruptions to Goldsmith, the situation has since rapidly gotten worse.
“Now that school is cancelled it hella disrupts our lives,” he said, explaining that even as he does classes online there hasn’t been any talk of reimbursement. Goldsmith said that there can’t be a program without a school and he feels “angry, disappointed and scared” about the whole situation.
Exchange student from CUHK Kathy Chan feels the same way. A senior currently studying communication at USC, Chan feels distressed by the escalation of the protests, especially during the siege at her alma mater. “It’s especially heartbreaking for me because I’m overseas as my friends and classmates get arrested so I can’t be there to support them in person,” Chan said in an interview in Cantonese.
USC’s study abroad offices have been working hard to offer support overseas. Sean O’Connell, manager of the Marshall School of Business’ undergraduate international programs, assures that the office has been actively monitoring the situation. O’Connell said that while some WBB students at HKUST, such as Goldsmith, are choosing to fly home. Others are choosing to stay in Hong Kong or are traveling in the area while doing work online.
“There are some parents and students extremely concerned about the situation, and so those students most likely are going to be going back home,” O’Connell said, but adds that the opposite is true as well. “There are students who are excited to be in this situation and by that I don’t mean the violence or other things like that, but rather with seeing a world historical event occurring right before their eyes.”
Though some of these students stay in university housing off campus, others stay in residential halls on campus and have had tear gas go into their units. To help students feel safe, HKUST has announced that it would pay for any students to move to a hotel away from possible harm.
O’Connell said that the WBB program will, at the moment, remain in Hong Kong. “The classes for spring begin in February… the belief is that the situation occurring in Hong Kong right now will have dissipated by then,” O’Connell said. If that doesn’t happen, the WBB program will see what HKUST’s decision is and decide how they should proceed, such as taking online classes or having HKUST faculty teach at USC.
Marshall also has not announced any formal end to their programs in Hong Kong, but has offered students alternative trips. At least two students are opting to continue with the program next term, according to O’Connell. “They still want to pursue their exchange program in Hong Kong so we will honor that,” he said, adding that the students had to fill out paperwork and meet with advisors to discuss the risks involved.
For Annenberg’s spring semester at CUHK, students who have applied will go on alternate trips or stay at USC. “The situation could change, protests could die down and society could maybe go back to normal, but at this point in time we want to give students the opportunity to choose a place to study abroad where we can ensure their safety, security and quality of experience,” said Katy Kelly, associate director of Annenberg International Programs.
Mara Lorin, a junior majoring in communications who originally signed up for a spring semester in Hong Kong is one of those affected. Lorin said she is disappointed and was looking forward to the food and culture of the international city.
Instead, Lorin will be studying in Sydney, Australia next term, but said that she would have gone to Hong Kong if Annenberg had not intervened. “I think a lot of what the media promotes is … just the 2% of bad that is really happening,” she said. “They magnify that, and the situation on the ground isn’t as bad as the media makes it appear.”
Chan, the exchange student from CUHK, said that while nobody can predict what the situation will be at the start of the spring semester, she is cautiously optimistic. “I really hope that Hong Kong will still be a safe place,” she said.