International students from Taiwan give the low-down on studying in Hong Kong under the national security law
By Hsieh Fu-yee and Lee Hsue-li for The Reporter/RFA Mandarin
July 23, 2023
Teachers and students attend a flag-raising ceremony to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, July 1, 2022.
Taiwanese students who enrolled in Hong Kong universities since a 2020 national security law banned public criticism of the government say they have no freedom to talk about politics, with some engaging in self-censorship for fear of getting themselves or others into trouble.
They talked about what what it's like to study at a Hong Kong university amid an ongoing program of patriotic education in schools and universities since the national security law was imposed on the city in 2020.
They said they are very careful not to make any political statements at all, with others citing "disgust" at the encroachment of Chinese Communist Party propaganda onto university campuses and a sense of "hopelessness" about the city's future.
A student who gave the pseudonym Florence said she is very careful about what she says while she is in Hong Kong.
"I let everything roll off me here, and I don't comment or express opinions," she said. "I can't talk about sensitive topics publicly, but I don't feel it's too much of a pain."
"Does the national security law have any impact on me? Not much at all," she said.
Fellow Taiwanese student Gavin said he has also chosen to keep quiet in public.
Four months into his course, he saw campus security guards clear away a campus protest in solidarity with the November 2022 "white paper" protests that swept China in response to a deadly lockdown fire in Xinjiang's regional capital Urumqi. Then they called the police.
"You need to be aware that Hong Kong may be more tightly controlled than a lot of places in mainland China even," Gavin said. "I supported them, but I daren't help them for personal safety reasons."
"But the rest of the time, there's no impact," he said of the citywide crackdown on dissent.
However, a number of the students who are currently in Hong Kong glanced around nervously while talking to The Reporter, to check that nobody was in earshot.
In mainland China, there is already a widespread culture of political informants in schools and universities, and there are concerns that this could soon spread to Hong Kong, where a hotline taking reports of national security law breaches received 400,000 calls last year.
Protesters hold up sheets of paper to commemorate the deadly Urumqi fire during a gathering at the University of Hong Kong, Nov. 29, 2022. Credit: Bertha Wang/AP
Another student who gave only the nickname Henry said he went in 2019 because he won a scholarship, and that the protest movement didn't put him off.
"From the perspective of someone from Taiwan, demonstrations aren't very shocking – they're just demonstrations," he said. "Isn't it normal to demonstrate?"
However, Henry got up at one point during the interview to make sure his door was shut before continuing.
He then told The Reporter that government policy used to be commonly debated in some disciplines at Hong Kong universities.
"Lecturers would put government policy on the table for discussion and comment with students, but now they're also under a lot of pressure, and they don't talk about these things any more," he said.
"Universities once known for their critical thinking were now sending emails to lecturers inviting them to attend a flag-raising ceremony for the Chinese national flag," he said.
"The university's student union has been disbanded and student self-governance is dead," he said. "I don't talk about this publicly, and I'll think twice before discussing it on social media."
National security education
Then there is the matter of the "national security education" modules that are now mandatory in Hong Kong's universities.
"One day I received a notification that a class has been posted on the course website and that I was required to complete it," a Taiwanese student who gave the pseudonym Edgar told The Reporter.
Edgar enrolled in the fall of 2022, and his class was in the first cohort of foreign students required to take a class in "national security education," which is mandatory for all students.
Media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of the Apple Daily newspaper, leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van in Hong Kong, Feb. 9, 2021. Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Course content covers the history of modern China and the national security law, and a pass is needed in all tests to graduate.
"Which of the following actions could be said to breach the National Security Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region?" reads one test question.
It offers a number of scenarios including "contacting international organizations to call for sanctions against Hong Kong," "posting online messages saying Hong Kong is independent of China," donating funds to an international organization that attacks Hong Kong, and planning to "attack" government buildings.
The answer? All of the above.
Edgar said the multiple choice test wasn't too challenging – he didn't even need to watch the video tutorials to gain a 100% score, but confessed to some feelings of disgust as he did so.
"Those exam questions are exactly the same as the propaganda we see on [Chinese state television]," he said. "This has now become a requirement to graduate – I feel disgusted about that."
Gavin said he answered a question on the jailing of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai for his "national security education" test.
He and some classmates got together to study the "correct" answers to the test, which include statements like "the status of the chief executive is higher than that of the legislature and the judiciary, and the chief executive is the core."
It also asserts that the law has retroactive effect.
"This course is ridiculous," Gavin said. "It may not be hard to pass the test, but you have to be emotionally passive and powerless to do so."
"We're foreigners, so why should we have to be patriotic or understand the Chinese constitution?" he said.
Yeh Chiah-hsing, a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he isn't so bothered by the propaganda class, however.
"These general education courses don't need to be taken so seriously," he said. "Also, it's important for students from other places to understand China's narrative about itself."
"After all, discourse in the English-speaking world isn't very friendly in the way it describes China ... you can see the confrontation of discourse in this course."
But Lin Tsung-hung, a researcher in social sciences at Taiwan's Academia Sinica, said the courses are a form of psychological intimidation.
"When you read text aimed at brainwashing you, you don't just wind up brainwashed; it takes effect on another level, that's the problem," Lin told Radio Free Asia.
"It is also telling you that, in a society that has this level of brainwashing, they can raise the stakes at any time, and start watching you at any time, like Big Brother," he said in a reference to the fictional, all-seeing dictator of George Orwell's novel "1984."
"It doesn't actually really matter too much what Big Brother is telling you."
People hold Taiwanese flags as they join others at a rally to mark Taiwan's National Day, in the Tsim Sha Tsui district in Hong Kong, Oct. 10, 2019. One Taiwanese student says she hasn't been allowed to hang a Taiwanese flag when taking part in international student gatherings, as students from other countries can. Credit: Kin Cheung/AP
Lin also warned that Hong Kong's once-respected universities will likely fall in world rankings due to the national security law, adding that lecturers and professors are leaving because of it.
"When a lecturer leaves, it's not just about brain drain," Lin said. "It affects people's networks – there's nobody there to write a letter of recommendation, and professors coming in from mainland China will have completely different networks and viewpoints."
Taiwanese student Elaine said that while she doesn't feel impacted personally by the political climate in Hong Kong, she hasn't been allowed to hang a Taiwanese flag when taking part in international student gatherings, as students from other countries can.
Nobody told anyone that Taiwan's flag was now taboo – a "consensus" just formed among the students, she said.
"The school didn't actually inform us that we can't display this flag,” she said. “I guess maybe they thought we would figure that out for ourselves."
Taiwan split from mainland China amid civil war in 1949. It has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the 73-year-old People's Republic of China. But Beijing insists the island is a province of China and bans any references to its sovereign status as the 1911 Republic of China.
For Tanya, who was born and raised there, Hong Kong seemed like a cool place to go to business school.
"When I was younger, I wanted to go to business school somewhere outside of Taiwan," Tanya said. "The international environment of Hong Kong seemed like an ideal place to be."
She enrolled in a course beginning in 2016, two years after the 2014 Umbrella Movement failed to pressure the authorities into allowing fully democratic elections in the city, and after the "fishball rebellion" unrest in Mong Kok.
She knew the city was becoming less free under Chinese rule, but she had her own criteria.
"I thought I would leave when you could no longer get Google or Facebook in Hong Kong," Tanya said, in a reference to the stringent government censorship applied to mainland China, known as the Great Firewall.
Chen Wei'an headed to the city two years later, in 2018, just before the 2019 protest movement exploded onto the city's streets, challenging the erosion of Hong Kong's promised freedoms.
"I was super anxious because I wanted to do research in areas like gender studies, Hong Kong's Basic Law, and China's United Front operations," Chen said. "But I didn't know if there would still be academic freedom in Hong Kong by the time I graduated."
In the end, he went anyway, because "if Hong Kong was going to change, I wanted to see it while it was still Hong Kong."
Chen Wei'an came to study in Hong Kong in 2018, but says the political atmosphere already reeked of despair. He left after a few months and enrolled in a Taiwanese university. Credit: Huang Shize
But Chen found a political atmosphere that he felt already reeked of despair.
"I tried to find friends who cared about politics, but I couldn't stand the sense of hopelessness," Chen said. "The sense of powerlessness was terrifying, and I felt I could suffocate."
He left after just a few months and enrolled in a Taiwanese university instead.
Drop-off in numbers
Chen doesn't appear to be the only person put off by studying in a city whose promised freedoms have been all but dismantled under Communist Party rule.
According to estimates compiled by The Reporter among the Taiwanese communities in Hong Kong and Macau, around 900 students from the democratic island, whose government has been vocally supportive of the 2019 protest movement, were studying in Hong Kong universities in 2019, with the number rising to around 1,000 in 2020.
Since Beijing imposed the national security law, those numbers have fallen sharply.
By 2023, there were only around 300 students from Taiwan still studying in Hong Kong's universities.
The island's Ministry of Education and Mainland Affairs Council said they have been unable to compile figures since the Hong Kong authorities stopped issuing visas for its representative office in the city.
A Taiwanese student who gave only the nickname Daniel who enrolled in business school in Hong Kong in August 2019, at the height of the protest movement, said his family and friends tried to get him to come home.
"The main consideration was my personal safety – they were worried that the petrol bombs and tear gas they saw on news footage would spread to every corner of the city," he said. "But I wasn't going to be there my whole life, and so [I told them] I would stay for as long as the political situation wasn't affecting my studies."
Tanya, who now works at an investment bank in Hong Kong, said she had genuinely believed when she first arrived as a student in 2016 that Beijing would keep its promise to allow the city's freedoms to remain unchanged for 50 years from the 1997 handover.
"I've been in Hong Kong a long time, and I love it here," she said. "But the constant political turbulence means that I can't stay just because of that."
Despite their disgust with mandatory national security education classes, Edgar, Gavin and Daniel all plan to look for jobs in the city when they graduate, citing higher salaries than in their native Taiwan.
"I think it was worth it, coming to Hong Kong to study, but there are sacrifices in doing that," Gavin said.
"You can't say whatever you want – there's no freedom."
Based on a collaborative report by RFA's Mandarin Service and The Reporter, a Taiwan-based investigative magazine.
Interviewees' names have been changed at their request.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.