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‘They’ll die for this cause if they have to’: UoB students in Hong Kong say they’re not ready to leave

‘The police are completely out of control’

Following the eruption of mass violence on university campuses in Hong Kong and the University of Birmingham's subsequent decision to recall students from their years abroad, The Birmingham Tab spoke to two students studying at universities in the region to discover what it's really like on the ground.

The University of Birmingham emailed students yesterday, strongly recommending that they return home. Likewise, many other universities around the UK, including Edinburgh, Warwick, Sheffield, Southampton, Nottingham and Aberdeen, have also ordered their students to leave the region.

Mass protests have been going on in Hong Kong for almost six months, initially starting peacefully over proposed legal changes allowing for extradition to mainland China. However, the the disruption has descended into a fight for fundamental democratic rights, and the police force have been widely criticised for their use of excessive violence and brutality, with two protesters being shot earlier this week.

Recently, violence has moved from the streets of Hong Kong to university campuses, and on Tuesday, over 100 people at the Chinese University of Hong Kong were injured in a battle between the police and student activists.

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Gemma Erskine, a third year Law with Business student, is studying on her year abroad at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which has lately been one of the worst affected by the eruption of violence in the city. She told The Birmingham Tab how for the protestors on her campus, it's a case of "life or death. They’ll die for this cause if they have to."

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Gemma, three days before she was told to book her flight home from her year abroad

She describes the violence of last Tuesday as extremely frightening. "Everything was on fire and we had people pleading with us to call our embassies and get help. They were using the sports centre as a medical centre, and they’ve made campus into a base camp. They’ve blocked every entrance and have built this wall (below) themselves by taking bricks out and doing cement. They’re just waiting for the police to return to kick off again."

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The wall built by protestors on the CUHK campus

"The protestors have no intention of hurting us and want to keep us safe. But Hong Kong is now a humanitarian crisis and the police are completely out of control."

Matt Rofe, a third year Biological Sciences student, is studying at the City University of Hong Kong, located a little closer to the centre of the city. He describes how over the last few weeks it feels like things have changed. "A few weeks ago, there were more people on the streets, and things seemed more hopeful. There were five demands [that protesters were seeking]. Now, it's sort of just a battle against police brutality at this point.

"Police are beating people up for no reason, basically, and then the protestors are fighting back more and more violently, which then the police are responding to more and more violently too. It's a vicious cycle.

"I've caught the end of some tear gas a few times, but for the most part I've stayed out of the way. But they've got an unbelievable amount of support."

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The City University of Hong Kong canteen, taken yesterday.

Both Gemma and Matt told The Birmingham Tab that the support offered by the University of Birmingham has been exemplary, including offering them financial support in order to ensure their safety. Gemma said that they made it clear to her that" academics is a problem for another day", whilst Matt was reassured that his degree grade wouldn't be negatively impacted.

"Obviously it's been a difficult job for them, but they've been in contact the whole way through," says Matt.

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It is currently uncertain as to whether British students will be able to return to the region next semester, although both Gemma and Matt remain optimistic that they will. Gemma told the Birmingham Tab that although she's disappointed about her year abroad, she remains grateful that she has the means to leave in the first place.

"I’m safe in the UK, but for these people now it’s either continue these protests and potentially get very injured. A few told us they’d commit suicide than be under Chinese control.

"I would refuse to go anywhere else [on my year abroad], because there’s nowhere I think that can compare now. I'm so emotionally connected to it. I just wish the conversation of the General Election was what is the UK doing [to help]. We left Hong Kong to China in 1997. We have a responsibility to be doing something."

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Likewise, Matt told The Birmingham Tab: "I feel like we've made a connection here, and then it's like we're flying out at the worst possible time. There are friends of ours who are local, and they're fighting every day, getting tear-gassed by police. Flying out feels a little like a cop out, I guess."