As political tensions flare back home, Hong Kong students on U.S. college campuses say they have been ostracized and in some cases threatened by fellow students from mainland China, and they suspect they are being watched from afar by Beijing.
Some say they see the hand of the Chinese government working in ways that threaten academic freedom.
“Even though many Chinese students are studying right here, sometimes they are all being monitored. They’re not really free of their minds and expression in this country,” said Hong Kong democracy activist Nathan Law, a 26-year-old graduate student in Asian studies at Yale University.
Law said he was told by a fellow student that other Chinese at the Ivy League school are avoiding contact with him for fear it will be reported back to the Chinese Embassy and they or their families back home will face consequences.
“There will be staring, spotting me and discussing among themselves, and pointing at me in an unfriendly manner,” said Law, whose continuing political work has included visits to Washington to meet with members of Congress.
Hong Kong has been beset with huge pro-democracy demonstrations since June that have triggered clashes with riot police in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory and stirred fears of a violent crackdown from Beijing.
Over 360,000 students from mainland China attended U.S. colleges and universities in the 2017-18 school year, compared with about 7,000 from Hong Kong, according to the Institute of International Education.
At Emerson College in Boston, student Frances Hui, of Hong Kong, faced threatening language from classmates from mainland China after she published a column in the student newspaper headlined “I am from Hong Kong, not China.”
She said she was unnerved by comments online by people who said they had seen her on campus and described her as short, which made her feel as if she were under surveillance. And she panicked when an Emerson student posted her column on Facebook along with a comment that any opponents of China “must be executed.”
Hui, 20, said she alerted the Emerson administration.
Emerson spokeswoman Sofiya Cabalquinto said the college supports “the rights of our students' voicing their opinions and doing so free from threats.” She said the college put a plan in place to address Hui’s concerns, but she would not say whether disciplinary action was taken against the student who made the online post.
Law gained prominence as a student protest leader before winning election to Hong Kong’s legislature in 2016 but was later expelled as a member and jailed for several months for his activism.
He said he started getting death threats of unknown origin online soon after he arrived in August, including warnings that people with guns would go looking for him at Yale and suggestions that Chinese students in the U.S. assault him. He said he was also subjected to insults echoing a Chinese Communist Party campaign labeling him a criminal.
He reported the threats to police and the Yale administration. He said the harassment has subsided since Yale police began monitoring the online threats.
He said he hasn’t faced anything so overt from Yale students, although he said people have circulated his information in a group for Chinese students at Yale on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, and urged people to say “hi” to him _ a gesture he saw as vaguely threatening.
A Yale spokeswoman, Karen Peart, said only that the university police department takes appropriate action whenever a campus community member faces an unsafe situation.
A report this year by Human Rights Watch said Chinese students at times remain silent in their classrooms out of fear their comments will be reported to Chinese authorities by other students. The organization described the monitoring as one of several ways the Chinese government undermines academic freedom on foreign campuses.
“Schools need to get very clear about these problems and they need to get policies to respond to them,” said Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director.
At universities in Australia and New Zealand, students on either side of the political divide have built up and torn down displays advocating autonomy for Hong Kong.
And there have been signs of tensions at other U.S. campuses, including Georgetown University in Washington, which has seen dueling chalk messages on the Hong Kong protests, and Columbia University in New York, where Hong Kong democracy advocates were greeted last month by protesters holding China’s flag at a lecture hall where they were giving a talk.