Police called in as Hong Kong and China tensions spread to UK universities

Camilla Turner
Hong Kong and Chinese students have had a series of clashes in university cities across the UK  - David Rose

Police have been called following a series of clashes between Hong Kong and Chinese students as universities are accused of failing to protect them. 

Students across the UK have told The Sunday Telegraph how they have been threatened, intimidated, harassed and in some cases physically assaulted by their Chinese peers while staging pro-democracy protests. 

It comes amid warnings that Chinese students from the mainland are being directed by the state to defend Communist China.

In one instance, a student from Hong Kong said that while she was printing out flyers for a rally she was attacked by a group of six Chinese students who pinned her up against the wall. 

Hong Kong students at Sheffield and Liverpool universities said they are now too scared to go to lectures where there are a lot of Chinese students, following heated showdowns.

It comes as protests in Hong Kong spin into their fifth month, as anger continues to grow over what demonstrators see as escalating police brutality. 

In Sheffield city centre, violent clashes last week saw a Hong Kong student being hit by a bottle and a 19-year-old arrested by police under suspicion of committing a public order offence. He was given a caution, while a 25-year-old student is being investigated by the university. 

"There was a Chinese student who even threatened that he would kill us if we openly criticise China," said a second year software engineering student at Sheffield. 

"I never thought he would actually throw glass bottles at us, it reminded me of being on the train in Hong Kong when pro-China triads assaulted me. I thought Sheffield was a safe city. Why should I suffer from a similar situation as I did in Hong Kong when I am now in the UK?"

Vincent Mak, president of Sheffield's Hong Kong society, said that students feel the lack of support they have received from the university has been "shocking".

"There is a very serious sense of hyped up nationalism among Chinese students," he said. "I don’t think the university understands the severity of the danger that we face as Hong Kong students. 

"We don’t trust the university can help us anymore. We don’t feel safe in Sheffield, we don’t feel welcome here. There are more Chinese students who bring more profit to the university. As a stake holoder we don’t have much more say."

The number of Chinese students applying to British universities has increased by 30 per cent since last year, from 15,240 to 19,760. 

There is huge demand among the growing Chinese middle class for their children to have an English education, while British institutions are rushing to cash in on the higher, international student tuition fees they bring in.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that universities have become “over-reliant” on student numbers from China in recent years. 

“As the Indian numbers have tailed off we are now left with a disproportionate number of Chinese students and that leaves universities very conscious about their relationship with China,” he said. “They need to be very careful not to come down on one side or another and ensure the safety of all students.”

MPs were warned last month that the "sheer number" of Chinese students in the UK means that their influence should be considered as they can "change the nature" of an institution. 

Dr Christopher Hughes, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE), told the foreign affairs select committee that some Chinese students at British universities "are being manipulated and used by the embassy and their agents" in an organised fashion.

Liverpool University students have told how during a pro-democracy rally on campus they were "surrounded" by Chinese students. 

"They were singing their national anthem in a provocative manner," said Sam Lai, a first year Liverpool student. "Some of them approached us and threatened us, saying they will find us and beat us up. One of them attempted to assault us but the police stepped in."

Meanwhile, an Aston University student described the harassment she faced while taking part in a pro-Hong Kong event in Birmingham city centre. 

"It varies from taking close-up pictures and videos for identification purposes, shouting abuse and even physically following us after our events," she said.  

"I feel threatened by this behaviour and although the student union was supportive, I was told not to wear a face mask on campus when distributing flyers which could have personal safety implications. We have decided to hold our events in the city where police protection made us feel more at ease in exercising our rights of demonstration."

A member of Exeter University's Hong Kong society said that during their pro-democracy rally in the city centre earlier this month they were "stalked and followed" by Chinese counter protesters. 

The student also feared their identities being revealed, adding: "We do believe they are circulating the photos through social media and we are all possible targets to them."

Sheffield, Aston, Exeter and Liverpool universities said they support students' right to peacefully protest and do not tolerate harassment or intimidation. They urged students to report any untoward behaviour to staff. 

Sheffield University said it is "committed to ensuring everyone feels safe and welcome on our campus and in our city", adding that it has written to all students to remind them of their code of conduct and was working with the student union to address concerns. 

Study Group, which runs Sheffield University's international College, said they are investigating an incident involving a 25-year old student at the protest last week. 

Aston University said that students were told that masked should be avoided to "aid the security team in keeping all students safe". Liverpool University said their staff worked closely with the police to manage the protest on campus earlier this month, adding that it "remained peaceful throughout". 

 The Chinese embassy and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association adeclined to comment.