One month on from Black Bloc Day: HK student campaigners juggle community tensions, identity, and going home whilst Minouche visits Beijing

Director Dame Minouche Shafik may have ruffled some feathers with her recent travel plans. As the stakes climb for LSESU’s Hong Kong Student Alliance amid warnings from the Chinese government towards pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong after the latter achieved a landslide election victory last Monday, Shafik shakes hands with Peking University officials in hopes of further integration with LSE double-degree and summer school programs, as seen on Peking University’s Twitter page

Hong-Kongers and allied faculty members are awaiting her return, eager for a solution to alleviate concerns of compromising academic freedom. This comes after a proposed course at LSE, to have been funded by Chinese businessman Eric Li, a vocal supporter of President Xi Jinping, as referenced by the Financial Times and several articles in The Beaver. The Alliance’s month of resolution on behalf of their peers in Hong Kong, in spite of tensions on-campus and personal struggles, does not seem to be slowing down.

One month after Black Bloc Day, in which 70 LSE students gathered in black apparel for a photo-op to declare their solidarity with the protests in Hong Kong, Tamera*, a student in the Alliance, reflects on the tensions illuminated by the demonstration and their plan going forward. “There was specifically a man who was there who was wearing black. We didn’t know the man and he didn’t join the protest but he was filming the entire thing, including our faces.We were a bit worried because it’s common practice… that some people will film it so that it can be sent to dubious sources for identification of people who are politically dissident for… future record-keeping from authorities.”

However, Tamera and other organizers did not witness any outright violence or harassment during the afternoon rally, although tensions surround them in subtle forms. Tamera and those dedicated full-time to the Alliance’s efforts continue with hope in mind. She said: “I think Black Bloc Day and the tension that came afterwards informed the environment that we are navigating in, which is although there is tension, it is quite peaceful: no one is resorting to outright violence.It also highlights the capacity that the LSE student body has for intellectual exchange, so we see that as a potential for something more constructive.” 

Their optimistic resolve manifested in colorful, handmade cutouts on Saw Swee Hock’s windows last Thursday during the Alliance’s exhibition of the timeline of the Hong Kong protests.

“The exhibit for me was more about giving context and creating an environment where people can learn at their own pace instead of [in] the really emotionally-charged screaming and chanting that has happened in most campuses around the world,” said Tamera. 

Andrew*, another Alliance member, remarked that a secondary goal of the exhibition was to garner support from international students. He said: “We don’t just want Hong Kong people, we want international students; we want to broaden us as a campaign.” Thus far, he said, their methods have worked. “Most of the international students are quite supportive. Unfortunately, they don’t know that much about it, but throughout these events they can actually know what’s happening and what we’re fighting for.”

Just outside of the exhibit, Jocelyn*, another Alliance volunteer, urged onlookers to sign their Open Letter on Academic Freedom for Shafik. The Alliance collected over 270 signatures to-date in support of their five suggestions to the Director: reassessing LSE’s sources of funding and focusing more efforts on protecting academic freedoms, via re-evaluating its base of academic expertise and conducting due diligence on the activities of organizations on-campus, and investigating how student welfare has been impacted. 

The Alliance also sought to mitigate some of the more subtle threats to their freedom to express their political viewpoints. “We took a lot of the points through the information that was shared with us from these academics and their concerns and then we tried to make it something that’s focused and that would generate some sort of action from the LSE management,” said Tamera. “A lot of it is an environment of threat… but that in itself puts a lot of people under a veil of self-censorship and that’s something that we will actively tackle.”

“A lot of people didn’t know that what we wrote was actually happening in LSE,” Jocelyn said. “But none of them really found it that shocking; I mean we all know what’s happening.” It is worth considering LSE’s past in dealing with autocratic influence from abroad. Christopher Hughes, professor of International Relations and an expert in East Asian geopolitics, is all-too familiar with this trend at the school. He said: “Like all other universities, the LSE administration is being faced with the huge problem of influence and interference by well-resourced and organized autocratic states and has not put in place the procedures and training that allows us to effectively deal with it “This is disappointing because the problem has been developing for many years and measures could and should have been taken. The most notorious case was taking money from the Gaddafi Foundation.” 

For Hughes, the floodgates are open, and there seems to be little incentive to put a stop to it. He said: “It is extremely difficult, and maybe impossible, to introduce institutional safeguards to prevent these outcomes once money is received. So it is better not to take it in the first place.”

The school’s potential path-dependence is further entrenched by the complications from its past decisions and its lack of initiative in seeking counsel from in-house experts. “There are two obvious challenges: the tendency towards self-censorship in order to obtain access to funds; and reputational damage consequent on being seen to take funds from a source that publicly promotes values that are not compatible with the LSE’s values,” he said. “I do not know what the LSE administration is doing, because the administration appears to have little incentive to talk to academics who work on autocratic states.”

Furthermore, pressing questions from concerned students pile onto one another while Director Shafik is absent from campus. “How is the school operating?” asked Tamera. “Is it going to go through the strenuous process that’s needed for it to safeguard our prestige as a well established, far beacon of academic freedom? Or are we just going to go along to become a business that will do anything that gets us the most money?”

“University is really an important place for people to learn. And what a university decides to do determines what we learn and the false ideas for the next generation, so it’s really important for us, [and] it’s really important for the UK and the world as well,” said Andrew. 

According to Hughes, students, however, do not stand a chance in communicating these concerns with the administration unless academics stand up as well. “It is particularly important for academics to not give in to the insidious tendency of self-censorship that is produced by the well-organized campaigns of autocratic state,” he said. “If senior academics are afraid to defend the School’s fundamental values, how can we expect junior colleagues and students to do so?”

Despite concerns, the Alliance and associated faculty members look forward to working productively with Shafik and the administration on the issue. “We are hoping to work with the school in a productive and constructive way to get that dialogue going,” said Tamera.

However, the environment of threat has escalated to direct attacks from anonymous Internet trolls, most of whom are speculated to be LSE students who use the Open Letter and the Alliance’s social media page to spread their distaste for the Hong Kong protests. “People have been using that form to put death threats,” said Jocelyn in reference to seeing a common phrase cursing the death of people’s mothers on the form multiple times. “It’s sort of a light death threat but it’s used when someone negates what you’re doing. That was alarming.”

The Open Letter explicitly names one Chinese organization on campus, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), as being suspected by the Royal United Services Institute to be an instrument of the Chinese state interfering with and harassing the campaigners. However, CSSA refutes both claims. “[The CSSA] does not have relations with any political institutions and will not take any organization-wide stance in any political events,” claimed a CSSA spokesperson*. “However, as Chinese students at LSE, we strictly abide, as our bottom line, the principles of one country, two systems national policy. We respect every individual’s right to cast the freedom of speech, and reserve the right to make our voices heard in the situations needed.” CSSA was adamant in its response in negating its association with any political establishments. There have been reports of the CSSA receiving direct funding and support from Chinese consulates however, most notably in the US, according to a Foreign Policy article published in 2018. 

Regardless of concerns of direct interference, the overarching concern is the misunderstanding of the purpose of the Hong Kong protests and campaign. “While I do respect their time and effort in putting down those comments, a lot of them are quite ignorant and it’s just sort of to camouflage their flawed understandings about our campaign,” said Jocelyn. Veronica*, another Alliance member, said that much of the misunderstanding arises from the propagation of problematic narratives. “It’s because it’s a convenient narrative: you’re pro-Hong Kong, then you’re anti-China,” said Veronica. 

In fact, Tamera is quite open with her pro-China viewpoints, despite the fact that this is not necessarily shared by her other Alliance counterparts. “We have very different views even within the campaign. I’m very pro-China, but I feel like I’m a rare one,” she said. For Tamera, this makes dealing with the tensions that much more frustrating. “I think it’s been quite frustrating because I think there’s this heuristic psychological shortcut. When people see the Hong Kong protest, they assume that these are people who are separatists who hate China, that they are violent,” she said.  “I think none of those things apply to myself, so for me, trying to even have an open space for conversation before people jump to conclusions has been frustrating. I don’t know what to say other than it’s frustrating.”

 In particular, some see the Chinese media as responsible for warping the protesters’ demands. “The mainland doesn’t help in clearing that categorization; if anything it’s hoping to polarize the population between Hong Kong and China for political means,” said Tamera. 

“The PRC campaign to frame this as an issue of Hong vs China has successfully diverted attention from the real issue of democratic government in HK. The five demands of the protestors are public and clear, and do not include independence in any form, only the meaningful development of one country and two systems,” said Hughes. “Somehow a significant number of students from mainland China have been manipulated and mobilized against HK students by the PRC’s presentation of them as traitors to China. Many students from mainland China are actually sympathetic to the Hong Kong demonstrators, but do not dare to say so in public; they are also victims of the PRC’s influence campaign and need to be protected.”

Nevertheless, the Alliance doesn’t see themselves as victims. “A lot of people come up to us organizers saying ‘You are really brave’,” said Tamera. “But it shouldn’t be something that should be commended as brave; we are just doing what we’re supposed to do,” Veronica interjected. 

As Winter Break looms, these Hong Kongers have what may be considered bigger decisions to make as they adjust to the thought of going home – or not. “I think I feel a great sense of guilt in the sense that I am very privileged to be here. I think that there’s a huge sense of powerlessness, which I think is true even when you’re home but even when you’re away its like you can’t even provide the emotional support,” said Tamera.

In spite of geographic distance, any extra time they have outside of classes goes towards unravelling the protests through the news. “With the time difference, a lot of our weekend activities is just watching live-stream television of what’s happening in Hong Kong,” Tamera said. 

“I am really conflicted because it is really sad that I feel safer doing what I do here than in Hong Kong,” said Veronica.  “In Hong Kong, my parents don’t support the movement, so they don’t know what I’m doing here which is really sad. I feel like I can make more of a difference here because what am I supposed to do in Hong Kong? Throw petrol-bombs? I can’t do that.” Much of Veronica’s hesitation, however, also originates from fear of reprisal from law enforcement back home. “I am actually scared that I will be targeted by the police if I’m just passing by; I wish I didn’t have to feel safer campaigning in the UK than in Hong Kong; it is really sad,” she said.

For others, the feeling of displacement is akin to being numb with confusion. “To me it’s definitely schizophrenic,” said Jocelyn, who just came back from Hong Kong over reading week. “I was dropped in the midst of this chaos everything; there was a spirit going on but nevertheless it was still very grim. After a week of being in that atmosphere, I was suddenly picked up and dropped off again in some free air. Like the moment I got to Heathrow, I was like, it just doesn’t feel right to me, and when I say “go home”, I don’t really know what that means anymore.” 

Powerlessness is a universal theme for many of these campaigners. “There are limitations to what a student-led campaign in London can do basically,” said Jocelyn. Others are willful in transforming their grim feelings once they land back in Hong Kong. Andrew, who slept on the streets among other protesters during the Umbrella Protests in 2014, is aware of the dangers but feels obligated to mobilize upon his return. “I’m worried that I won’t be able to get back because when I go, I know I will join the protests,” he said.  “Some of my friends are there; some of my friends are arrested actually so I have that worry, but I also feel like it’s worth it. Because if you don’t fight for it who will? And sometimes when something’s right, you have to do it even when it’s hard.”


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