Tufts reacts to Hong Kong protests

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gather in Hong Kong's Admiralty District on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014, after the government canceled talks with the Hong Kong Federation of Students. Guillaume Payen / NurPhoto / Zuma Press / MCT

This September a series of protests erupted in Hong Kong in a movement now known as the Umbrella Revolution. While these protests are not local, they have been present in the conversation at Tufts, from the Tufts Global China Connection’s “Discussion of Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution” to conversations among alumni of Tufts’ study abroad program located in the city.

According to a Sept. 28, 2014 article in Vox, the protests, led by student groups, were largely in response to the Chinese governments’ retraction of its promise to give the region full democracy.

Hong Kong’s citizens are protesting to keep their promised democratic rights, which they worry — with good reason — could be taken away by the central Chinese government in Beijing. This moment is a sort of standoff between Hong Kong and China over the city’s future, a confrontation that they have been building toward for almost 20 years,” Vox writer Max Fisher said.

According to the article, the campaign called Occupy Central began with peaceful protest, but the Hong Kong police cracked down with greater force than expected, including guns. In reaction to the violence from the police, a large part of the civilian population has since joined the movement.

Support for the movement can also be found on the Tufts campus. Many students were invited to a national Facebook event called “Wear Yellow for Hong Kong.” The event was scheduled for Oct. 1, and while the event was organized by Harvard University, many students from other surrounding schools in the area, including MIT, Berklee and Brandeis, participated.

Many students at Tufts also have very strong connections to Hong Kong. Senior Victoria Tang studied abroad with the Tufts in Hong Kong program during the spring semester of her junior year, and fell in love with the city.

“Hong Kong is a great place to study abroad because it has everything,” she said. “You have everything that a modern city could offer [including food and nightlife], but you also have great hiking and beaches nearby.” Tang said.

Senior Isabel Yannatos, who also studied abroad with the Tufts in Hong Kong program, enjoyed her experience in the city as well.

“I loved the program,” she said. “Hong Kong is a great city because it has a unique history that’s led to an interesting blend of cultures. It has an extremely dense urban center with lots of things to do and explore.”

In light of the recent protests, Tang was able to offer a unique perspective because of her semester abroad.

“I’m not from Hong Kong, so I can only tell from reading things online,” she said. “I asked my roommate from last semester how she was doing, and she says she and her fellow students are passionately fighting for democracy. She’s thankful for the international support that Hong Kong is receiving.”

In terms of the Tufts study abroad program in Hong Kong and how administrators are dealing with the protests, Tang offered reassurance.

“Tufts in Hong Kong is [in the] spring only, so hopefully the protests will be over, or there might be some agreement or resolution by 2015 when the program starts,” she said. “Protests had not started while I was in Hong Kong — Hong Kong is very safe. There are always people out and about, so you’re never alone. And there are buses and cabs everywhere, so you can always get home easily.”

Yannatos has similarly stayed informed of the situation after her time in Hong Kong.

“I think most residents are unaffected physically except for some traffic delays and detours,” she said. “Although numbers at the protest sites are dwindling now, there’s still an active presence, and they are reinforcing the barricades with bamboo and cement to prevent the police and anti-Occupy forces from reopening all the streets.”

In addition, Yannatos added her perspective and insight into the situation as a whole.

“I didn’t expect protests like this to erupt,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t interact and immerse with local students enough, but I was not aware of a strong political streak in students’ lives … I did know that many Hong Kongers are extremely proud of their unique position and are vehemently against China, which sometimes manifests as anti-mainlander bias and stereotypes.”

According to Yannatos, however, students at the University of Hong Kong — with which the Tufts program is affiliated –– did not make up a large portion of the students who began the protests.

“I don’t think University of HK students are the strongest presence — students are from schools across the city,” Yannatos said.

For international relations and art history major Sophia Lin, the recent protests have hit very close to home. Lin grew up in an expatriate community in Beijing, allowing her to form friendships with students at international schools in Asia.

“Our community often made a conjoined effort to support whichever cause needed us the most, whether it was a natural disaster or large societal problems,” Lin said. “This was done in multiple ways such as fundraising, spreading awareness through discussions in class or posters around school or even having students from that specific place speak about these causes in assemblies.”

Through this experience in supporting various international causes, Lin formed her own perspective on the Umbrella Revolution.

“The protests going on in Hong Kong right now are definitely not different,” Lin said. “It’s hard to see the streets that we all used to gather at be torn apart into this political scene. Although we’re not there physically, we’re definitely wishing the best for all involved, and the best for Hong Kong. I’m sure that this has still rocked the lives of many who attend Tufts, thus awareness on this issue as well as any type of support would help those of us who may be worried about the situation at home.”

Yannatos, however, expressed her concern that despite Tufts students’ best efforts, their support would not have a great effect on the situation itself.

“As an outsider who feels some connection to the city, I support the protests any way I can [such as spreading information or attending a rally in Boston], but I know nothing I do will actually make a difference,” she said. “It’s an appealing movement to get involved in because as Westerners, we’ve accepted democracy as the best form of government, but I feel justified by the fact that it stemmed completely from locals’ desires and not from foreign pressure or involvement.”

Despite her hopes for the future of Hong Kong, Yannatos was hesitant to make conclusions.

“It’s unclear what the results of this movement will be,” she said. “I am hopeful that it will remain peaceful and that some negotiations and changes occur. Realistically, though, China is so powerful that HK doesn’t have a chance of obtaining full democracy. Regardless, the way in which the protests were conducted … is extremely commendable. They’re sending a strong message that Hong Kong people are not politically apathetic and they will stand up for their rights.”