HONG KONG – Mainland Chinese students have begun fleeing Hong Kong campuses over security fears, police and university officials say, as the city’s seething political crisis saw some of its worst violence this week.
Six months of anti-government political action have morphed from peaceful mass rallies into a “blossom everywhere” campaign of hit-and-run confrontations with police by groups of black-clad protesters.
Key roads were cut by brick and bamboo barricades on Thursday, a cross-harbor tunnel was closed and metro stations and bus services were suspended.
Authorities ordered schools and universities to close until next week, while hospitals deferred nonemergency operations.
Thursday’s first volleys of tear gas were fired early in the day by police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University as a call went out for protesters to mass at the campus.
Students are using a novel arsenal of weapons to defend themselves and attack police, from giant makeshift catapults to bow and arrows looted from sports departments. They have also used tennis rackets to volley tear-gas canisters back at police.
The most intense clashes occurred on Tuesday at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where police fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, and protesters threw gasoline bombs and bricks, paralyzing the campus and the area around it. CUHK has now ended the current term early.
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology arranged a special bus service to ferry students from its campus to a station that offers services to the mainland.
The Hong Kong Baptist University suspended on-campus teaching two weeks before the scheduled end of the semester, switching to either online sessions or postponing classes altogether. It also announced online teaching arrangements for students who choose to return to mainland China.
Several Nordic students had to move into a hotel because demonstrators were on the school grounds. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry said “students should continuously evaluate campus safety if teaching is interrupted due to protests,” and the Technical University of Denmark urged its 36 students in Hong Kong to pack up and return home.
A youth wing of the Communist Party in Shenzhen on Wednesday said it was offering free accommodation at its facilities for mainlanders studying in Hong Kong. Other groups posted similar offers.
Separately, the Taiwanese government said it was making arrangements to help Taiwanese students return home.
It was not immediately clear how many mainland Chinese students have left Hong Kong during the latest escalation of violence. Before the protests erupted more than five months ago, there were 12,000 students among the more than 1 million mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong.
Good academic reputations, greater freedom and the possibility of gaining a foothold overseas were all reasons for mainland Chinese students to study in Hong Kong.
Some mainland students who fled now sit in hostels and noodle shops in the neighboring city of Shenzhen wondering how they will complete their studies. “It’s really just not safe anymore, and I don’t see it getting any better,” said one student leaning on a suitcase outside a restaurant.
Fears intensified this week because of a widely circulated video of a mainland student being beaten by protesters at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Anger boiled over there following the death of a student who fell from a parking structure as police used tear gas against protesters.
“The discrimination towards mainlanders is growing worse,” said 22-year-old Frank, a postgraduate student who had just left the university for Shenzhen. “They’re so prejudiced toward us mainlanders, and that’s not going to change, so why go back?”
The protest movement is the biggest challenge to Beijing’s rule since Hong Kong was returned by Britain in 1997, fueled by fears that China is choking the liberties and freedoms the city is meant to have under the handover deal.
More radical demonstrators have targeted businesses and people perceived to be pro-China. In a particularly shocking incident, a man was doused in a flammable liquid and set on fire during an argument with pro-democracy protesters.
Such attacks have been picked up by Chinese state media, which have described the pro-democracy protesters as “rioters.”
The nationalist tabloid Global Times described the situation as an “Escape Day.”
“It’s hard to go to the campus, it’s risky,” said a Hong Kong University postgraduate student who gave his surname as Zhang.
“The atmosphere is pretty intense. I live in (a) student flat and so far it’s fine. But I’m afraid if anything happened, you can’t leave.”
Another mainland student who asked to remain anonymous said she recognized many other students at the West Kowloon high-speed railway station, which connects Hong Kong with Shenzhen and beyond.
“The atmosphere these days … makes me want to leave,” she said before departing for the mainland, referring to the “bad mood” the situation had caused among Chinese students.
The only thing that made her feel better was “going to McDonald’s.
“I can’t stand that,” she said. “So I finally left.”