(Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

A demonstration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong, Sept 2, 2019. During hourslong standoffs with students this week, the Hong Kong police broke an unspoken rule to keep off campuses.

November 17, 2019

As Escalating Hong Kong Protests Move to Universities, Cornellians Studying Abroad in HK Prepare to Leave

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After five months of protests in Hong Kong, the city’s universities are becoming epicenters of increasingly violent conflict— and now international students studying abroad in Hong Kong, like Abbie Zhu ’21, are evacuating the city. Although her peers from other American universities have been called back home, Zhu and her fellow Cornellians are figuring out their own travel plans amidst limited communication from Ithaca.

As one of the four Cornell students studying abroad in Hong Kong this semester, Zhu had originally planned to leave Hong Kong at the end of December. But she decided to cut her time short and will be flying out of the city next week to Shanghai, where she has extended family.

Protestors at University of Hong Kong spell out "revolution" in Chinese with roadblocking bricks.

(Courtesy of Abbie Zhu '21)

Protestors at University of Hong Kong spell out “revolution” in Chinese with roadblocking bricks.

On Thursday, Zhu’s classes at the University of Hong Kong were cancelled for the rest of the semester, and a statement by vice provost of international affairs Wendy Wolford confirmed that several Hong Kong universities had ceased face-to-face classes.

“I’m leaving with a lot of regrets,” Zhu told The Sun in a phone interview. “I thought that I would have a month more to go to explore the city. A lot of things that I planned to do, I won’t be able to do.”

Major clashes with the police have largely occurred at other universities, such as Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where police stormed the campus barricades on Monday morning (Hong Kong Standard Time) and fired petrol bombs at the students inside, the Washington Post reported. At HKU, protestors are obstructing roads and local Mass Transit Railway subway stations and barricading buildings on campus.

The HKU MTR subway station.

(Courtesy of Abbie Zhu '21)

The HKU MTR subway station.

“[The protestors] are literally on the campus, and blocking all the entrances [to campus and academic buildings],” Zhu said. Public transportation has also been crippled; buses are unable to pick up passengers at HKU due to roadblocks set up by protestors. The protestors are also responsible for “destroying” the HKU subway stop, Zhu said, shutting off yet another transportation option.

Dozens of American universities have issued notices for their students to abandon their abroad programs and retreat back to the U.S. Syracuse University announced last Thursday that it would give students in its Hong Kong program until 4 p.m. on Nov. 19 to check out of student housing, while Georgetown University told its students in an announcement on Nov. 13 to leave the city as soon as possible, according to student newspaper The Hoya.

But according to Zhu, Cornell “has been very not attentive,” in comparison with other American universities.

“[The University of California] schools have been actively reaching out to all of the students and telling them to go back as soon as possible, and that they’ll cover any flight changes or whatever if they want to leave early,” Zhu said. “We don’t have any of that.”

Protestor-made roadblocks obstruct roads on the University of Hong Kong campus.

(Courtesy of Abbie Zhu '21)

Protestor-made roadblocks obstruct roads on the University of Hong Kong campus.

For students enrolled in the Syracuse program, the cost of changing to a Nov. 19 flight would be reimbursed later by the school, according to The Hoya.

“[Cornell’s international health and safety team] sent me an email recently asking me what my plans were and to check if I was safe,” Zhu said. “I told them that classes are cancelled and I’m going to Shanghai, and they were like, ‘Okay.’ And that’s it.”

“It just feels different,” Zhu said.

Email correspondence on Nov. 13 from Chris Cook, manager of international health and safety, to students abroad in Hong Kong included instructions to “continue to monitor local media, avoid all protests and demonstrations, follow the advice of local authorities, and keep in regular contact with friends and family.”

Cornellians in Hong Kong were “encouraged” to leave and finish their semesters elsewhere, and have access to Cornell’s International Health & Safety Team — a division of the Office for International Affairs that facilitates international travel for Cornellians — as well as International SOS hotlines, according to a statement by Wolford, the vice provost for international affairs.

For Zhu, the protests have defined her time in Hong Kong.

“I still really like the city, but the protests have affected how well I’ve been able to explore the city, and I guess how close I can feel to the city and its people,” Zhu said.

The obstructed escalators at University of Hong Kong.

(Courtesy of Abbie Zhu '21)

The obstructed escalators at University of Hong Kong.

Before she arrived in Hong Kong in August, Cornell offered Zhu and the other Hong Kong-bound students deferred enrollment until the spring semester, but Zhu decided to go anyway.

“It really wasn’t that bad back then,” Zhu said. “I didn’t really expect it to escalate that much.”

Zhu will complete the rest of her coursework online for the duration of the fall semester.

For former Hong Kong study abroad students, reports about the protests present a strange dichotomy between the city they experienced and the city they hear about now.

“Things started right after I had just left,” wrote Joyee Mok ’20, who studied at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology during the Spring 2019 semester. “It felt really weird to think that the home I just had for the past half year had become something so different. With how things have become now, I am incredibly upset.”

Unlike Mok, Joanna Li ’20, who attended HKU also during the spring semester, saw firsthand signs of rising tensions over the proposed extradition law.

On one occasion in May, Li happened upon a public discussion in a park by local Hong Kong residents of the controversial law.

“So many people were shouting — and it was all in Cantonese, so I had no idea what was going on. And then I talked to someone in the crowd, like, ‘Oh, can you tell me what’s happening?’ They kind of filled me in, and it was about the extradition law.”

Li was “taken aback” by how heated the public discussion became, but thought that it was an isolated incident. Upon her return to the states, reports of the increasing unrest in Hong Kong proved otherwise.

“It’s just very jarring. And your heart, like, breaks as you read it,” said Li. “This city that gave me the best semester is just — it’s never going to be the same, you know?”