Protesters in Hong Kong

Warwick Hong Kong protests: How it unfolded

On November the 6th, 2019, a group of Warwick University students from Hong Kong erected a Lennon Wall demonstration on central campus. Several hours later, the collage of a pig wearing a yellow helmet was taken down by campus security after complaints made by mainland Chinese students, who accused the image of being racist towards the Chinese people. Since then we have seen responses from the International SU officer and the Ethnic minorities officer as well as a statement from the HK students in question. The Boar has sat down with two Hong Kong students who were involved on the day as well as the International SU officer, ZiShi Zhang

The students are members of Warwick4HK, the student group responsible for the demonstration. Both students insisted on anonymity and told us they were worried about the potential consequences if they discussed these issues publicly. “I think it’s because of the pressure the Chinese and the Hong Kong government has given… even though we’re in the UK, there are reports that the Chinese government are also monitoring Hong Kongers and Chinese.” One of the students even told us that his name, photo and address had been circulated by another student, an incident so serious that it has been reported to campus security and his head of department.

On November the 6th, a group of Warwick University students from Hong Kong erected a Lennon wall demonstration on central campus

On the day of the demonstration, approximately 20 members of the Warwick4HK group helped in erecting both the Lennon Wall and the Li-Pig mural, with 10 students remaining to answer questions from passers-by. The protesting students said they hoped to cut through the “sea of biased information” surrounding the protests. “The Lennon Wall is quite new to the world… it shows the lies being told and what the witnesses [in Hong Kong] have seen.” They elaborated by saying how the majority of the media focuses solely on the violent protests that occur in the city, rather than the mounting evidence of police brutality against Hong Kong protestors and even potential police collaboration with organised gangs.

The Lennon Wall was barely the start of the controversy and so far, most of the debate has centered on their post-it-note mural of the “LiPig”, a mascot used by protestors. When asked about the controversy surrounding the pig, the students expressed their confusion over the accusations of racism made by both mainland Chinese students as well as the International SU Officer. In an open letter written by ZiShi, he contends that the pig image is racist towards the Chinese, suggesting it is a reference to “Zhi Na” (pig), a slur originating during the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. However, the HK students were keen to point out that, “the Japanese oppressed not only people from China but people from Hong Kong too… the slur would apply to us as well, so why would [the movement] say that about ourselves too?” “The Li Pig is cute. It’s a cute image of a pig wearing a yellow helmet? I just don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Approximately 20 members of the Warwick4HK group helped in erecting both the Lennon wall and the Li – Pig mural, with 10 protesters remaining to answer questions from pedestrians

Regarding the reaction of the mainland Chinese students, they recalled how, “in the beginning [there were] two students, I was explaining to them what happened and we had a good conversation but then a large bunch of [mainland Chinese students] came.” The members of Warwick4HK maintained that the majority of the mainland Chinese students who gathered at the demonstration, whilst visibly agitated, remained calm. However, they did convey a feeling of being disrespected or patronised by the Chinese students.

On the other side of this controversy is ZiShi, the Student Union’s non-EU International Officer, who was the only individual to sign the open letter to the University and was involved in pulling down the image of the Li Pig. We spoke to him to try and understand his perspective of this incident.

“There are a couple of issues,” he said when asked about the Lennon Wall. “It wasn’t clear whether the University had granted them permission or not but (…) they had granted it so I thought OK that’s their freedom of speech but I had a couple of concern(s) with how the university processed this application.” ZiShi was clear that he wasn’t opposed to their right to expression. He claims the issue arose over the messages they used and the manner in which they went about it. “As far as I know it didn’t go through the student council and there are signs and petitions and posters being put up that aren’t in English and it’s generally university policy that if you apply for a demonstration in the piazza, all materials must be in English.”

Where he felt compelled to act was in response to the image of the pig, later explaining that the “Chinese students felt it was very insulting and that’s why students tried to take the poster down, I think that it is highly inappropriate because there is suspicion that it is referring to the Zhi Na Pig.”

The Li Pig is depicted wearing a yellow helmet, which is worn as an informal uniform by the protesters in Hong Kong. When asked if this reinforces the argument made by the HK students, ZiShi responded by saying it’s “because that’s their own explanation… they claim the image of the pig wearing a helmet is for their movement but this is not objective truth. They put forward this theory themselves. Why do they specifically choose a pig? Why not a goat or an Ox?” Researching the issue further, it has been found that the reason for Li Pig being a pig is because it first came about as a set of emojis on LIHKG (a Hong Kong based Internet Forum) to celebrate the Year of the Pig, which began in February 2019.

During the interview with the Hong Kong students, they firmly told The Boar that none of the information that was provided on the piazza or on their Instagram account (Warwick4HK) were anti-Chinese Government. In response to this, ZiShi called it a “blatant lie” and that the students are using this narrative to “diverge attentions to their behaviour[sic]”.

Blog posts written by ZiShi clearly show his desire to fight for the freedom of expression of Chinese students and to call out injustices faced by Chinese individuals, such as when he launched a petition against United Airlines in the wake of a 2017 racism scandal. However, some HK students found other posts “alarmingly patriotic”. In response to the incident that occurred on campus, ZiShi wrote that “it is the 21st century, Chinese students surprisingly still have to have white left wing westerner’s politically correct agreement to express reasonable demands”, “The People’s Republic of China has experienced history of blood and tears, will not compromise again!” as well as a picture of a letter signed with his own blood stating that “Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity is divine and cannot be violated”.

ZiShi has published a letter, signed with his own blood, stating “Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity is divine and cannot be violated”

In response to these posts ZiShi was clear in emphasising that “[the] quotation is not pro-Beijing, it is my anger that on the international stage Chinese students voice[s] are not properly represented, especially when their opinions align with their government.” Further pointing out that no member of the SU is politically neutral and that “there’s nothing wrong with being patriotic”.

When asked specifically if his political beliefs could be an issue regarding Hong Kong and student protests, his reply was blunt. “The sepratist [movement] is illegal and I do not support illegal movements”. When it was pointed out that none of the content that Warwick4HK had provided was sepratist, ZiShi responded saying that separatist sentiment was implied in the non-English documents, and that if the pictures and documents were translated there would be sentences “at least implying to challenge the Hong Kong status or the legal rule of China in Hong Kong”.

When asked if he would support the pro-Protest Hong Kong student in the face of potential harassment from Chinese students, he responded by saying, “I would not support any form of harassment, from anybody to anybody. I would not support any personal attack or leaking anyone’s personal information because people don’t agree with them.” He continued in saying he will be involved in a meeting with the SU President and the SU Minority Ethics officer in the near future to discuss this matter further and maintained that he wants “all sides to de-escalate tension”.

Tensions remain high in Hong Kong and the issue has gained attention internationally, with students residing in the UK setting up similar Lennon Walls in support of the movement. When asked where they would go from here, the Hong Kong students remained determined to continue raising awareness of the conflict, with talks of open forums as well as greater collaboration with other UK universities and potentially local MPs. More broadly they would like to see the SU condemn ZiShi for his actions during these events, stating that his decisions were “entirely biased” and that “as an international officer he is supposed to represent us too… we no longer feel that he represents us at all”. ZiShi however, fervently denies these claims and was keen to restate his commitment to representing students of all backgrounds, emphasising any student who feels unsafe should come to him for help and advice.

Indeed, at the time of publication, it has come to light that one student from Hong Kong feels ‘unsafe’ at Warwick, having been photographed by a mainland Chinese student. Click here to find out more.

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