Medical schools suspend cross-border classes in China

Two of Hong Kong’s top medical schools that regularly send students to mainland China for internships in hospitals are suspending cross-border classes and internships amid fears that students may be targeted by mainland authorities because of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

A spokesperson for the University of Hong Kong (HKU) medical school said students would not be attending classes in Shenzhen, where HKU has a teaching hospital, for the rest of the year.

“The school has always arranged for students to study clinical medicine at each teaching hospital including in Hong Kong and Shenzhen,” a spokesperson from HKU medical school said. “Currently the school has no plan to arrange for students to attend classes at the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen hospital.”

Medical students were notified some days ago that all compulsory courses at the university’s Shenzhen hospital would be suspended. This came after students complained to the medical school administration about searches of mobile phones and social media accounts at the Hong Kong border with China, where they were asked to delete references to Hong Kong’s protests.

Some students are now concerned that security officials will be looking for evidence that they participated in protests and use the information to detain them.

Students detained

The HKU students’ union said it had been informed that several HKU students had been detained by Chinese public security.

In a statement on 24 August, the union said it had also received complaints that “during trips to China for compulsory learning activities, they [students] were forced to unlock their mobile devices which were subsequently subjected to scrutiny by Chinese authorities”. It said it was concerned that the university’s inadequate measures to safeguard students were putting student safety in “considerable jeopardy”.

HKU students’ union said it “strongly demands” that the university authorities “cancel all compulsory learning activities in China and provide alternatives for completing the curriculum requirements”.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Chinese Medicine has said students interning on the mainland can complete their courses back in Hong Kong after it received enquiries from students “expressing concern” over having to take part in internships across the border.

The university said it would make arrangements “as soon as possible” for students to complete their internships in Hong Kong and added that since the beginning of August it has been arranging for staff to accompany students across the border.

A spokesperson for the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) said: "Our School of Chinese Medicine has been closely in touch with students to provide the necessary support for their study. In August, our teachers accompanied students to the teaching hospitals in China and visited them during the interns' placements."

The spokesperson said if students wished to return to Hong Kong during the internship, the school would facilitate that, but students still need to fulfil the relevant internship requirements which are required to be licensed as a Chinese Medicine Practitioner.

"Students can choose to have their internship in Hong Kong for the latter half of the school year," she said.

CUHK's Bachelor of Chinese Medicine programme requires students to finish a clinical internship at Chinese medicine hospitals in China for 38 weeks and another internship either in China or Hong Kong for 20 weeks.

Cross-border teaching

Medical school professors from both CUHK and HKU travel across the border to teach, while students visit the Shenzhen hospital for some lessons to understand medical cases that are not so prevalent in Hong Kong and to broaden their medical training.

Both universities are planning to expand medical teaching across the border to Shenzhen. CUHK is planning to set up a teaching hospital in Shenzhen, while HKU is planning to set up a new medical school attached to its Shenzhen hospital, benefiting from Hong Kong’s high standards in medical training.

Shenzhen currently only has a single medical school. According to some estimates, for the size of the population of more than 20 million it needs to train around 2,000 to 3,000 doctors a year, and the provincial government in Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong, is keen to encourage more exchanges.

On 13 August employees of Hong Kong’s public hospitals held sit-ins against police brutality, which they have witnessed during their work as the violence at the protests escalated.

In addition, many people in Hong Kong have become anxious about the risk of going to Shenzhen, particularly since the news broke of a British consulate employee, Simon Cheng, being held for two weeks after trying to return to Hong Kong via the high-speed train from Shenzhen.

UK Foreign Office warning

The United Kingdom Foreign Office last week updated its travel advice saying: “In light of ongoing protests and demonstrations in Hong Kong, there are reports of greater scrutiny from mainland authorities at border crossings between the mainland and Hong Kong.

“This includes reports that travellers’ electronic devices have been checked at border crossings. You should be aware that the thresholds for detention and prosecution in China differ from those in Hong Kong.”

Canada has also warned its consular officials in Hong Kong from travelling to China and issued a general advisory for its citizens to be cautious about travelling to Hong Kong.

This week China’s Minister for Public Security Zhao Kezhi, during a visit to Guangdong province, called on police to guard China’s “Southern gate” – a reference to the border with Hong Kong – and to be vigilant against anything that could “infiltrate, subvert or sabotage the country”.

Long Yongtu, China’s former chief trade negotiator in the ministry of trade, also indicated that Beijing would not allow Hong Kong protests to spill over into China. “If there is a problem in Hong Kong, then Shenzhen will inevitably be dragged down,” he said this week.

UWN Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article