China’s universities deny places to Hong Kong protesters

After years of relaxing rules to encourage more Hong Kong students to apply to universities in China, official media is now reporting new ‘enrolment requirements’ to screen out applicants who take part in protests in Hong Kong, which are now into their seventh month.

Almost 6,000 have been arrested since the protests began in June, according to Hong Kong police this week, with 40% of them school or university students. Almost 1,000 of those arrested were high school students under the age of 17, the youngest aged 11, police said.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on 10 December that those arrested included pupils from more than 300 secondary schools in Hong Kong and called on schools to “stop students from taking part in unlawful protests”.

During the violent siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University which lasted for a week in November, some 20 secondary school principals were seen negotiating safe passage out of the embattled campus for more than 300 secondary school-age protesters. Teenagers were not arrested as they left the campus, but their details were taken by police.

Jinan University in southern Guangdong province currently has 5,554 students from Hong Kong – the largest number of all mainland universities according to official figures. This week an admissions officer of the university was quoted by the Global Times newspaper, which is published under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party organ People’s Daily, as saying that applicants who had participated in the protests in Hong Kong would not be considered.

Several other universities, including Tongji University in Shanghai and Fuzhou University in eastern Fujian province, have stated clearly in their 2020 enrolment plan that Hong Kong applicants must uphold the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, without saying that Hong Kong applicants would be barred.

The ‘one country, two systems’ principle under which Hong Kong has been governed since the handover from British rule to China in 1997 allows the city autonomy in many areas and preserves many of its freedoms, unlike on the mainland.

But Beijing sees the ‘one country, two systems’ policy differently, stressing the ‘one country’ element and the sovereignty of China over Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s Education Bureau said last month that the number of higher education institutions on the mainland admitting Hong Kong students in 2020 would increase by around 10% to 122 institutions.

Under a special scheme, the 122 higher education institutions from 21 provinces and municipalities on the mainland will accept candidates sitting the Hong Kong secondary education diploma in 2020; others take special college entrance exams designed for Hong Kong students by the Chinese Ministry of Education together with Hong Kong school references.

Alarm in Beijing

Hong Kong teachers note that while the police focus in recent weeks was on university campuses – with major battles between students and police at several universities – government concern that the protest movement has spread widely in secondary schools may be causing alarm in Beijing.

Tang Fei, a member of the council of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, was reported in Global Times as saying that the new requirements on Hong Kong applicants by some universities would prevent “secessionist ideas” from spreading to the mainland, under a special “review” of their applications from Hong Kong.

The main demands of protesters in Hong Kong have been for investigations into police brutality during the months of protests and for universal suffrage for Hong Kong. ‘Secession’ or independence from China has not been a feature of the protests.

Secondary school students set up various social media communications platforms to coordinate class boycotts at the start of the school year in September, completely separately from university student unions.

Fear of being tarnished

There have also been reports that some mainland parents who had made great efforts to get their children into coveted Hong Kong schools may be removing them for fear that they may be tarnished by protest sentiment, which may affect future university and job prospects on the mainland.

Under Hong Kong rules, children born in the city are entitled to attend Hong Kong schools even if they live on the mainland. Hong Kong schools have been popular with mainland parents living close to the border.

“Hong Kong has a different political and educational system, which in itself is not a problem, but if it deliberately instils an anti-China attitude in the next generation, then it would be unacceptable for some parents,” He Wen, a Hong Kong affairs specialist at the Shanghai Institute for East Asia Studies, was quoted by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper as saying.

Global Times reported in August that more than 10,000 Hong Kong high school leavers applied to mainland universities in 2019, saying it was a “new high, over the past eight years”.