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Hong Kong students fear consequences of openly criticising China after new law imposed

After China’s imposition of a new law, limiting the freedoms of residents of Hong Kong, students from the territory said they fear the consequences of openly expressing criticism of the Chinese government on British university campuses.

Students from Warwick, as well as Oxford, Sheffield, Loughborough and Nottingham, told The Times that they feared being reported to the Chinese embassy in London if they protested the actions of the mainland. 

They explained that they consider it too dangerous to become involved in pro-democracy campaigns, sign petitions or vote in Students’ Union (SU) elections on the topic, fearing for the safety of both themselves and their friends and family back in Hong Kong.

China imposed a law limiting the freedoms of residents of Hong Kong last month, breaching the 1997 handover agreement that afforded them rights not enjoyed by people in mainland China.

Under the new law, “acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in the territory” have been made illegal, meaning that protestors can be extradited to the mainland and punished. 

Tom Tungendhat, Conservative MP and chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, expressed concerns that the principle of extraterritoriality implied by the law means that it could be applied to limit freedom of speech for Hong Kong residents in the UK, including students.

Academics have called for so-called “Chatham House” rules to be introduced on campus, whereby information and opinions presented in discussion can be reported on, but the source may not be identified. Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS, said that students “should be granted automatic anonymity in classroom and SU debates”.

The law strips us of all sense of security to speak without fear of being arrested or abused, and have the personal safety of our friends and families compromised

– Anonymous Warwick student

One student at Warwick argued that the law “strips us of all sense of security to speak without fear of being arrested or abused, and have the personal safety of our friends and families compromised”. 

The student added: “Such fear does not stop even if we are out of China due to the toxic culture and practice of the overseas Chinese community.”

A Sheffield student said: “Many of us have deleted (social media) posts and self-censored ourselves because there is a causal relationship between what we say and our personal safety.”

A third said: “Even if such a law has not been passed, people like us face doxxing (maliciously searching for information about a person online), intimidation from opponents. The introduction of the national security law definitely left a huge impact [on] our decision-making in terms of the methods and scale of campaigning when we are back in the campus.

“Everyone keeps mentioning that the UK is a free country that allows freedom of speech. However, the university keeps letting us down when they try to classify the arguments between HK people and China students like personal arguments.

“The attitude of the UK university itself is a problem.”

Tensions between some Hong Kong and Chinese students are already running high on university campuses. At Warwick, masked members of Warwick4HK, a group of students from Hong Kong who oppose the actions of the Chinese government, have twice erected a Lennon Wall on the Piazza, displaying slogans such as “free HK”. 

Such fear does not stop even if we are out of China due to the toxic culture and practice of the overseas Chinese community

– Anonymous Warwick student

The first incarnation of the wall was later criticised by mainland Chinese students as racist, due to the image of a mosaic pig, although the protestors said it was put up “for the purpose of attracting attention and constructing a symbol of the Hong Kong protestors”. 

The mosaic pig depicted on the wall was based on an emoji on the social media platform LIHKG, which was used by Hong Kong citizens to organise protests. The emoji was co-opted to become a symbol of pro-democracy and featured on many placards and banners. 

One student involved in the construction of the wall was later allegedly photographed in a seminar by his mainland Chinese classmate, leading to fears for his safety. 

Earlier this year, another individual was reportedly threatened and received death threats after displaying a representation of the Li pig in their accommodation.

Some Chinese students have also reported feeling ostracised on campus and labelled as “weird” and “irrational”, as well as dehumanised by the term ‘Chinazi’.

Xiaoyuan Li, a Master’s student in anthropology at the London School of Economics, told The Times: “The ‘Chinazi’ term is, to put it bluntly, a dehumanisation of those Chinese who disagree with western received opinion. It is a tacit justification of verbal and even physical abuse, and of ignoring their opinions.” 

Support for the protests in Hong Kong was overturned at the SU All Student Vote in February, following a heated debate.

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