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Hong Kong is currently in the midst of major political protests regarding a clash between pro-democracy protesters and Chinese-supporting authorities seeking to suppress the movement. As a result, the University of Kent has ‘encouraged’ and advised its students there to return to the U.K. amid rising tensions and greater degrees of violence.
My problem with this decision is that, whilst I understand the anxieties and fears that the university (and no doubt the students’ friends and family) hold, the pro-democracy protests come as a direct legacy of Britain’s own rule of Hong Kong that ended in 1997. The University of Kent is correct to want to protect its students and get them to safety; however, there seems to be absolutely no consideration for those students wishing to remain in Hong Kong.
Firstly, the decision to remain or not should surely be one down to the students themselves. I presume all are adults and as such the rather juvenile treatment pervades the strange state which ‘students’ are held within. While legally adults, we, for the most part, have our own perspective ignored in favour of an institution’s. It would seem the university is acting to preserve its own reputation as opposed to actually working with the government to protect its students.
An even more pressing question regarding the university’s decision is that of the colonial implications this has. As aforementioned, Britain ruled Hong Kong until joint-sovereignty was finally given to it and mainland China under a ‘one country, two systems’ policy. However, due to the capitalist and Westernised rule Hong Kong endured, the general populace is one whom grew up with democratic ideas that have been consistently suppressed by China’s government. The university removing its own students thus has culturally-significant implications in that, as opposed to a show of strength, the university has opted to cowardly retreat. This reinforces the narrative of Britain’s infamous decolonisation which saw hundreds of territories devastated by Empire’s unstructured and culturally ignorant transition of power. Had the university sought to help its students as opposed to taking what I deem to be the easiest option possible, perhaps that narrative could have been averted. Not only would this help the students who no doubt wish to remain in Hong Kong but would more so show the university, being a representative of Britain, as attempting to undo the damage of their ugly past.
I am not naïve, and I realise this could be dangerous or even a vast oversimplification of events in Hong Kong. But what should not be forgotten is the fact that every single day the citizens of Hong Kong are experiencing this for democracy. They have no choice but to stay and fight. By having British students repatriated, the University of Kent sends out a message that this is not our problem when in reality this is far from the truth. We must accept some degree of responsibility in the current chaos. Had the university attempted to offer help to its students in Hong Kong, instead of effectively forcing them to leave, the message received by the populace would have been one of solidarity and strength, not weakness and cowardice.
Finally, not only does the university’s forced repatriation of its students abroad mirrors the Chinese intentions which began the protests (which would have seen Hong Kong detainees unwillingly extradited to mainland China for trial), but it ironically contrasts the pro-democratic nature of the protests by restricting the freedom and autonomy of the students in their decision to stay and fight, or flight.