Only three years back, they were fleeing the city. Today, they are clamouring to go there. What has changed? Chinese students are queuing up to study in Hong Kong, the place many had run away from in late 2019, when pro-democracy protesters, angry with the Chinese government for trying to impose controls on free speech and elections, started targeting mainlanders. The situation turned so grave that Hong Kong’s universities and the police had arranged transport, including boats, for students to return to the mainland.
But all that’s over now, thanks to the Chinese government’s ruthless suppression of the pro-democracy movement after the enactment of Hong Kong’s national security law in June 2020. The two-year-long pandemic did the rest.
There’s one additional factor propelling the Chinese to look closer home, and that’s to do with the United States of America. The US was the favourite destination of Chinese students till the former president, Donald Trump, with his paranoia about China, banned students from universities that had ties with the Chinese military. The ban, which came into effect in June 2020, affected Chinese students so seriously that they have now got together to sue the US government. The witch-hunting of Chinese academics working in the US by Trump’s men didn’t help, nor did the attacks on Chineselooking Asians who were blamed for spreading Covid-19.
America’s handling of Covid has also not inspired much hope, especially when the Chinese compare it with the situation in their own country. In fact, the Chinese find most countries lacking when it comes to the way they handled Covid. This disapproval, however, doesn’t apply to Hong Kong, which followed China’s strict zero-Covid policy. The added advantage with Hong Kong is that its universities have always been highly rated, with three of them in the world’s top 100.
For Hong Kong, this new enthusiasm couldn’t have come at a better time. The Chinese government’s growing hold over the island city has sparked an exodus. From students to professionals, Hong Kongers are leaving, unwilling to see their city transformed from one with an independent legal system where people could speak freely to one as tightly controlled as any Chinese city. The official figure of residents having left from mid-2021 to mid-2022 is 95,000. Even the Chinese media have been forced to take note of the exodus, although they ascribe it to the strict restrictions imposed during the pandemic. That is true of one group: expats who gave Hong Kong its unique international character. Covid restrictions have also caused a drop in international student admissions, especially in the city’s famous business schools.
Right now, mainland students are giving hope to an economy that’s been in recession since the pro-democracy protests, which went on for nine months, and saw repeated violence between the police and protesters. The pandemic years only made it worse. Rents of apartments near universities have doubled — a 297 square feet, two-room apartment to be shared by two students costs HK $15,300 (Rs 1,59,028.45). Why would universities not take advantage? Tuition fees have increased, said one university head, and only the best students are being taken.
What of the anti-mainland sentiment? That remains as high as ever. A survey in 2021 found that 57% mainlanders had faced discrimination. In fact, discrimination against mainlanders may soon be included as an offence under Hong Kong’s Racial Discrimination ordinance. Will university campuses be free from such prejudice? Unlikely, going by past experience. But today, students’ unions no longer exist; they have all been disbanded, their leaders arrested. Hong Kong’s campuses, which have always led anti-government protests, are now quiet. Mainland students, therefore, may find themselves quite at home.