A protester waves the Hong Kong colonial flag during a July 2019 demonstration against the extradition law to China. Photo: Ivan Abreu/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A student resolution expressing support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement was voted down at the University of Warwick in England, after opposition from mainland Chinese students.

Why it matters: The charged politics of China's actions in Hong Kong are spilling over to university campuses thousands of miles away, raising questions for students and university administrators about how to protect democratic values.

Background: Huge protests have rocked Hong Kong over the past year, as millions of residents have pushed the city's government to table a controversial extradition bill with mainland China and establish universal suffrage.

  • Chinese state media in the mainland, where information is heavily censored, have portrayed the protesters as the violent pawns of "hostile foreign forces." Many Chinese oppose the protest movement.
  • China's treatment of Hong Kong has repeatedly violated the terms of the U.K.'s handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, including a provision that promised universal suffrage in the city by 2017.

Details: On February 3, the University of Warwick student union met to discuss a motion that would condemn the "abhorrent human rights abuses of the Hong Kong Police Force and the Hong Kong SAR Government."

  • A student from Hong Kong said, "we have no choice but to seek help from the international community."
  • "I ask all students from the University of Warwick to stand with Hong Kong," said another Hong Kong student. "Today we are trying to speak out against the Chinese government."

University of Warwick students who self-identified as coming from mainland China argued against the resolution.

  • "The student union should not take part in any political stance and should remain neutral," said one Chinese student.
  • "If you ask the students to vote tomorrow, because the number of Chinese students in this university is very large, I guess they will vote against it," said another.

What happened: The Hong Kong resolution failed, with 2,041 votes against and 971 votes for, according to a tally posted to the university website.

  • The resolution caused a huge surge in student voter turnout, with about 2,000 more students than usual casting their votes — approximately equal to the number of "no" votes.
  • During the 2019-2020 academic year, there were a total of 11 resolutions that were put to an all student vote. Each of those resolutions, with the exception of the Hong Kong resolution, was voted on by around 1,000 students; most passed by a wide margin.
  • The Hong Kong resolution was voted on by 3,000 students. It was the only resolution in the 2019-2020 academic year that related to China.

Context: The University of Warwick has about 27,000 students. Of those, around 3,200 are Chinese international students, according to the university website.

  • Chinese students comprise the largest group of international students in Britain, with around 120,000 Chinese international students currently studying at universities there.

The big picture: Chinese international student organizations in several countries have courted controversy for attempting to harass dissidents or shut down activities perceived as critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

  • Chinese embassies and consulates maintain close relationship with Chinese student groups, providing funding, occasional political directives, and even paying them to attend pro-China demonstrations.
  • Mainland Chinese students and Hong Kong students have faced off at numerous universities around the world in the past year, including in Australia and the U.S., as the protests in Hong Kong grew more heated.

Go deeper: China plans sweeping national security law for Hong Kong

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