McGill has suspended all student activities in Hong Kong for the Winter 2020 semester due to safety concerns caused by anti-government protests. The university’s five partner institutions in Hong Kong—the Chinese University of Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the University of Hong Kong— will no longer be destinations for McGill students going on exchange in January 2020. In the Fall 2019 semester, over half of the McGill exchange students in Hong Kong attended the University of Hong Kong and the rest were at the other 4 institutions. McGill spokesperson Cynthia Lee explained the extent of activities affected.
“[The suspension] includes but is not limited to student exchanges, teacher training stages, internships and independent research abroad,” Lee wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune.
Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Fabrice Labeau discussed the difficulties faced by those who wish to apply for another destination.
“[We have] told students who were trying to go to Hong Kong [for exchange] that they can choose a new destination, but the likelihood of that happening is reasonably small,” Labeau said. “It’s December now. If you want to turn around and find a new destination and do the paperwork, the likelihood of it succeeding is very small so I assume that most of the students will actually remain here at McGill next semester.”
Several Hong Kong universities have been caught in the crossfire between protestors and the police, including The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which was seized on Nov. 11 by hundreds of demonstrators armed with 4000 firebombs. Labeau referenced the Travel Advisories issued by Global Affairs Canada, which help the McGill administration estimate the safety of destinations abroad that staff and students visit. On Nov. 15, 22 McGill students in Hong Kong were alerted of the administration’s decision to end their Fall 2019 exchange programs early.
“The unrest that was occurring [was] getting closer and closer to universities,” Labeau said. “That was troublesome. Coupled with that, the signs we were getting from our exchange partners, the universities themselves in Hong Kong, were [that] they were going to be terminating their semester early or allowing [their] students to do the rest of their semester online […] and take exams online [….] So the signs we were getting from them is that they were on their way to closing.”
Throughout the Fall 2019 semester, McGill routinely checked on its students in Hong Kong. According to Labeau, all 22 students are safe and are abiding by the administration’s request for them to leave the city. While the University of British Columbia has offered each of their 31 exchange students in Hong Kong a $1,000 emergency bursary, McGill will only offer financial assistance upon request.
“[There are] some students [who] didn’t have any trouble finding a way out,” Labeau said. “Some of them have plans to go and visit another country nearby and [rearranged the] airfare that was booked [….] In cases where we had students mention financial issues, we directed them to our Scholarship and Student Aid Office where we give [financial aid] on a case-by-case basis.”
For students planning on going on exchange to Hong Kong, the abrupt cancellation poses logistical and financial inconveniences. Students were forwarded a list of possible replacement destinations for the exchange, though none of them are in Asia. Helen Du, U2 Arts, was planning to go on exchange at the University of Hong Kong in the Winter 2020 semester. However, given the short notice of procuring a new Visa, housing, and transportation to a new destination, it is unlikely that she will go on exchange.
“I spent $1,500 on a round-trip ticket [to Hong Kong] and I’m not going to be able to get $350 back,” Du said. “I [also] spent $200 on my Visa, so this is a bunch of money I’m losing.”
It is unclear as to when student activities in Hong Kong will resume. Given the current political situation, and the fact that the process so far has been prolonged, it is unlikely that there will be a resolution soon.
“At the end of the day we’re not the biggest victims here,” Du said. “This does not not directly affect us as we are in Canada and this is happening on the other side of the world. But it’s really frustrating because of how long the process took and it was really dragged out.”