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Chinese nationalists at an Australian university trashed a protest wall supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement early Wednesday, in the latest sign of how tensions over the city are boiling over on campuses around the world.
It was the third time in a week that the University of Queensland’s “Lennon Wall” — a board of Post-Its bearing messages of solidarity with Hong Kong’s protest movement — was vandalized, according to the group behind the protests on campus. The previous night, a group of four masked men had been caught on CCTV entering the student union to tear down the display, after messages circulated on social media condemning supporters of the Hong Kong protests as “filthy creatures” and “disgusting maggots.”
Mass protests against Beijing’s tightening grip on the semi-autonomous city have roiled Hong Kong for more than nine weeks, with riot police — and occasionally armed thugs — clashing with protesters in increasingly violent standoffs. The deepening political crisis prompted China’s top office responsible for Hong Kong to issue an ominous warning to protesters Tuesday, saying their attempts “to play with fire will only backfire” and cautioning them not to “mistake restraint for weakness.”
The events at the University of Queensland (UQ) highlight how campuses in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada have become unlikely battlegrounds in the political crisis unfolding thousands of miles away on the tear-gassed streets of Hong Kong. With the protesters’ unprecedented challenge to Beijing’s sovereignty over the city infuriating Chinese nationalists, Hong Kong students and allies demonstrating at universities around the world have been threatened, doxxed and even physically attacked by counter-protesters — sometimes earning public praise from Chinese diplomats.
Drew Pavlou, a 20-year-old organizer of the protests at UQ, told VICE News that students who had spoken out in support of the Hong Kong protests had faced a climate of intimidation from pro-Beijing students on campus.
“Hong Kong students have been doxxed, their identities leaked online. Some have told me that they fear for their lives,” he said.
“I was assaulted at the protests and received credible online death threats,” he said, adding that the tensions meant campus security had to walk him to class.
Two weeks ago, police were called in to break up scuffles at a demonstration at UQ in which Pavlou had his megaphone knocked aside, and a pro-Beijing counter-protester grabbed a student from Hong Kong by the throat. The incensed pro-Beijing students demanded an apology from the protesters for the perceived insult to China.
The Chinese consul-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, subsequently praised the nationalists for their “spontaneous patriotic behavior” in confronting the “anti-China separatist” protesters, prompting Australia’s Foreign Affairs minister Marise Payne to issue a warning against foreign diplomats attempting to hamper free speech.
“The government would be particularly concerned if any foreign diplomatic mission were to act in ways that could undermine such rights, including by encouraging disruptive or potentially violent behavior,” she said.
The Brisbane-based university hasn’t been the only flashpoint in tensions over the nine-week protest movement. Similar scenes played out at the University of Auckland on July 30, when protest organizer Serena Lee was confronted by an angry group of pro-Beijing students. Members of the group called her a “fucking pig” in Mandarin, and pushed her to the ground.
As in the Brisbane case, the Chinese Consulate in Auckland issued a statement expressing “its appreciation to the [pro-Beijing] students for their spontaneous patriotism.” Lee told New Zealand media she has since been targeted with abusive messages, including death threats. Lennon Walls, a symbol of solidarity with the Hong Kong protests which have popped up around the world, have also reportedly been torn down at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
Despite the threats, insults and vandalism, Pavlou’s group says it is determined to continue speaking out on the Hong Kong issue. “We will continue advocating our cause, and never will we submit to any means of suppression,” the group said in a statement.
The University of Queensland has condemned the vandalism, saying that if those responsible were found to be affiliated with the university, it would take “appropriate action.”
“The University does not condone any actions that prevent free speech, including the targeting of the Lennon Wall in the Student Union complex. The UQ Union has CCTV footage of their premises and has provided it to the University,” a university spokeswoman said.
The standoff at UQ comes as the chief of China’s top policy office for Hong Kong described the protest movement as the most serious threat to Hong Kong since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
“We can say Hong Kong is facing the most serious situation since handover,” Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told an audience of political and business leaders in the Chinese city of Shenzhen. “The … saga has lasted 60 days. It has grown bigger, with violent acts getting more intense, and wider sections of society being affected.”
Cover: A couple hold hands as they join a protest in Hong Kong on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019. Droves of protesters filled public parks and squares in several Hong Kong districts on Monday in a general strike staged on a weekday to draw more attention to their demands that the semi-autonomous Chinese city's leader resign.(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)